English Heritage Blue Plaques dinnerware collection

When I first started freelancing, my nearest and dearest bought me good-luck gifts, ranging from a notepad headed by expletives and cat-shaped paperclips. How well they know me. Him indoors took it one step further with a personalised present, reflecting my obsession with English Heritage’s Blue Plaques – a scheme that commemorates places where notable people have lived.

However, there’s a new way for me to get my plaque fix on a daily basis. Product Of Your Environment, a design studio, has partnered with English Heritage to create a series of products based on the iconic Blue Plaques, starting with a collection of bone china plates. Which I imagine is a bit like having a dinner party with celebrities.

Blue Plaques plates

Blue Plaques plates

Hand-decorated in the UK, each plate replicates the plaque of a famous Londoner, including Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, Sigmund Freud and suffragettes Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. As well as looking great on the table, they’re ideal for hanging on the wall for a quirky decorative touch.

Jimi Hendrix Blue Plaque plate

Jimi Hendrix Blue Plaque plate

Given that this year is the 150th anniversary of the scheme, it’s the perfect way to invite a little history into your home.

Kenneth Williams Blue Plaque plate

Kenneth Williams Blue Plaque plate

I’m struggling to pick a favourite, so will probably have to invest in the set of six. However, if you’ve made it this far down, here’s your reward… needless to say, it’s completely my other half’s work and nothing to do with English Heritage.

Rachel's plaque

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Must-read: Magnet’s new kitchen magazine Ignite

Being asked to be a guest editor of the first edition of a magazine is a little like being invited to a party held by a celebrity. You’re keen to take part but at the same time it’s unknown territory and you’re aware that if you say the wrong thing, you probably won’t be asked back.

Fortunately, when I was asked to be guest editor of Magnet‘s gorgeous new kitchen magazine, Ignite, I didn’t really have to worry about either of those things. Not only is it crammed with fantastic kitchen hacks, behind-the-scenes features and a recipe for Brioche Bread Pudding that’s deliciously moreish, there’s even a great competition to win a slow cooker!

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One feature I enjoyed reading was an interview with Allan Mann, Magnet’s Stockton store manager. I love that he chose a bin as his favourite product because so often during a design, it’s the practical things that get overlooked. Yet they make such a difference if you’re a keen cook, love to entertain or have a busy family life that revolves around the kitchen.

Similarly, A Day in the Life of a Kitchen Designer makes fascinating reading – it’s easy to forget how much work goes into creating a dream kitchen.

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As well as his everyday job, Magnet designer Nathan Cronin also has to keep on top of kitchen trends – something I love to do as well.

I’m particularly looking forward to seeing what 2016 holds, with forecasts ranging from the use of more unusual materials, such as copper, brass and black marble, to diverse colour palettes that predict everything from soft pink and blue pastels to dramatically dark shades and everything in-between.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you think of Ignite and don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled for the next edition!

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Design hero: Tord Boontje

It’s no secret that I love good design and smart ideas that make life easier or more beautiful. Fortunately, in this line of work, I’m able to see a lot of stunning homeware and furniture and, as a bonus, get to meet the amazing designers behind them.

Last year, I was lucky enough to be able to interview Tord Boontje. Dutch-born but London-based, his designs demonstrate a real love of nature (if he hadn’t been a designer, he might have ended up as a forester or scientist apparently), exhibiting the same elegance and delicacy as flowers and plants. Their popularity is testament to their simple yet dramatic roots, with Tord’s iconic Garland light for Habitat selling out in days when it was released in 2003, and its follow-up, Bouquet, becoming just as sought-after.

Garland light by Tord Boontje

Garland light by Tord Boontje

Since then I’ve become a bit of a Tord-phile, avidly following his new designs and saving up for the day when I can scatter them throughout my home. That day came a little sooner than I thought with the edition of a pretty set of stamps that Tord has designed for Post NL. Featuring a host of woodland creatures with stars and signature trailing leaves and trees, they’re both festive and timeless. Unusually, as well as the usual Christmas creatures, they also feature foxes and swans, with each a miniature ‘story’ about being together.

Tord Boontje designed stamps

Tord Boontje designed stamps

After dropping Post NL a line to see if there was anywhere in the UK I could find the stamps, they were sweet enough to pop me some in the post, which I’ve framed for my office wall – my own miniature slice of Tord artwork to enjoy all year round.

Framed Tord stamps

Framed Tord Boontje stamps

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Testing: Oxo Cold Brew Coffee Maker

Did you know that coffee has more than 1,000 aroma compounds? Even now, it’s the irresistible smell that makes me opt for another cup or pause outside a cafe while I decide if have time to pop in. However, making a good coffee isn’t straightforward – it’s easy to scald or overbrew, resulting in a bitter taste.

So when I heard about a new way to make it that would produce a sweeter taste and smell, I was keen to try it for myself. Cold brewing is exactly that – replacing the hot water that’s pushed into the grounds using pressure (‘espresso’ means to force through) with steeping time and cold water. This releases the oils and aroma in the same way without risking any bitterness, producing a less acidic coffee concentrate.

Given that cold brew seems to be the latest food trend (move over salted caramel and pulled pork), there’s several DIY ways to make it at home that you can find online and some specialist jugs. However, I decided to try the Oxo Cold Brew Coffee Maker – a perfectly designed bit of kit consisting of a jug with a fine mesh base, stand, draining switch and ‘Rainmaker’ lid that helps distribute the water over the grounds. Plus it’ll also brew tea and comes with a storage flask.

Oxo Cold Brew Coffee Maker

Oxo Cold Brew Coffee Maker

I started by filling the jug with coffee. It’s best to use a medium to coarse grind, or one that’s suitable for a French press of Cold Brew maker. I’m using Cherizena Pure Colombian medium roast, ground for a cold brew maker. Next, I added water through the Rainmaker, at a ratio of 1:4 to really soak the grounds.

Dry coffee grounds

Dry coffee grounds

Rainmaker lid in place while soaking

Rainmaker lid in place while soaking

Soaked grounds

Soaked grounds

A quick stir is all it needed to help distribute the water further and then I left it for 24 hours, though it can take as little as 12 to brew if you’re in a hurry. For another layer of flavour, you can also add chicory or orange peel while it infuses.

Waiting time over, it was time to drain the grounds.

Draining the coffee grounds

Producing coffee concentrate

What comes out is a very strong coffee concentrate – while it looks and smells very much like standard coffee, it’s actually very strong and only a small amount, about 60ml, is needed for most drinks, of which there are plenty. It’s ideal for cocktails, such as espresso martinis or hard shakes, as well as frappes, or mixed with port or tonic for a refreshing summer drink. Here I’ve added milk, ice and vanilla extract:

Iced frappe

Easy iced frappe

Stored in the fridge with the handy flask lid that also double as a measuring cup, it’ll keep for up to two weeks, giving you plenty of time to try lots of drinks combinations.

How to cook a three-course meal on a George Foreman grill

George Foreman grills have an army of fat-busting cooking fans. Some cook almost every meal on it while others reserve their exclusively for creating super-lean, super-crispy bacon. However, could a grill do so much more than that, say, a three-course meal?

Spoiler alert: if it’s the new George Foreman Evolve grill, the answer is, yes. What makes it possible is its interchangeable plates. Each comes with a standard grill plate for meat and fish and general grilling as well as a deep bake pan that’s perfect for making pizza and even brownies.

George Foreman Evolve grill

George Foreman Evolve grill

Challenged to whip up a one-appliance feast guided by home economist, Emma Walker-Hughes, I couldn’t resist.

We started with sesame seed tuna steak, first coating it in a little olive oil, then sesame seeds. The grill has a Sear button, which instantly turns up the temperature to 260C and is ideal for meat and fish. While the grill can tip into a tilted position so fat runs away into the collector below, a special hinge at the back allows it to alternate. For the tuna we used it in a flat position.

Tuna steak on Evolve grill

Tuna steak on Evolve grill

In just a few minutes, it was perfectly cooked – slightly pink in the middle with a browned crust of seeds. Served with an Asian beansprout salad, it formed our lightening-quick starter course.

Seared tuna steak

Seared tuna steak with an Asian salad

Moving onto the main course required swapping the bottom grill for the deep bake pan – a high-sided cooking surface that can also be used to bake almost anything, such as brownies. However, we were making pizza – without an oven in sight.

Evolve with deep bake plate in position

Evolve with deep bake plate in position

Taking the proved dough and shaping it to fit the plate, we coated it with pesto and scattered over mozzarella, beetroot, broccoli, garlic, semolina and Parmesan.

Pizza ready to bake

Pizza ready to bake

Left to cook for about 10-11 minutes on 220C, the base rose beautifully while the cheese browned. The bottom of the pizza was especially firm and crisp.

Pizza hot from the grill

Pizza hot from the grill

Finally, our dessert was yellow plums infused with fresh rosemary. Threading the fruit onto skewers of the herb, we placed them on the grill plate to soften and sizzle, finally basting with a little honey and butter marinade.

Grilled plums on the Evolve

Grilled plums on the Evolve

Drizzled with more marinade, the results would make an impressive dinner dessert, and could be served with creme fraiche, Greek yogurt or ice cream.

Grilled plums make a great party dish

Grilled plums make a great party dish

So, three courses, minimal washing up (plus the removable plates can all go in the dishwasher) and only one appliance to wipe down. And, if you want to expand your repertoire, waffle plates are also available.

This could easily revolutionise dinner parties in my household. Let’s just say I’ve seen the future and it’s deep bake pan-shaped.

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Behind the scenes: Rangemaster factory tour

A sleek, colourful range cooker is the starting point for many kitchen designs but just how much work goes into making each one? I went to Rangemaster’s factory in Leamington Spa to find out.

The tour started with a sneak peek at the raw materials – steel and plenty of it. From here, we went to see parts and doors being pressed out of it by huge machines.

Rangemaster pressing maxchine

The parts are then put through a large washer, and taken for welding and polishing.

Rangemaster welding

One particularly neat thing is how they use the leftover steel from pressing out the doors – they make grill pans with it! Waste not, want not.

Rangemaster pansThen comes the fun part – painting! However, gone are the days of hand spraying. Drip-free and with an even finish, these machines use electrostatic technology, which invovles the spraying of electrically-charged paint at the metal. A magnetic attraction pulls paint particles towards the steel, resulting in a smooth surface.

Rangemaster painting

While there’s a huge team of highly skilled people working in the factory, some elements of production need a machine on hand. Robots handle some of the finer and more repetitive labour but they’re just as much of a part of the workforce. These two are nicknamed Torvill and Dean for their graceful moves that are in perfect sync:

Rangemaster robots

Of course a pretty outside matters not a jot if the inside doesn’t do what it should. So onto the ovens. To prevent trolleys of oven cavities blocking up the factory floor, there’s a clever system where they whizz over your head. A safety cage stops them from potentially tumbling down but it’s hard not to be aware that ovens are floating by. I was warned about cavities at school but I don’t think this is what they meant.

Rangemaster cavities

The range cookers are then assembled and tested to make sure that they work perfectly before being allowed to leave the factory floor.

Rangemaster assembled cookers

Then they’re given a final check over and a polish…

Rangemaster polish

…and sent off to their new homes to be the gorgeous, glossy centrepiece of someone’s kitchen – maybe even yours!

Rangemaster packed

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The puzzle of what to buy for a new home – solved

Not one, but two, of my friends have just moved house and both have been frantically downsizing. In both these cases, I felt that a casual vase or plant would simply be adding to the decluttering process and so I’m opting for the more disposable gift of flowers. However, I’ve just found a third solution and it’s something that’s so personal, so pretty and so special that I’m sure both of my friends would welcome it.taylored_packshots-91

 

This is a Home Sweet Home bundle from fledgling company Taylor’d Bundles, which makes beautiful bespoke gifts for all kinds of occasions, from newborn presents to thoughtful birthday bundles. It includes a proper pen and ink drawing of the front of your home, a papercut of your family’s names to display alongside in a double frame, personalised bunting and a handmade New Home card in a simple calico laundry bag.

The bundles are crafted by a team of 12 skilled artists and designers in the UK, yet with a cohesive feel as if you’d assembled it yourself. All coordinated by founder Caz Taylor before being bundled up by special delivery.

Far from being a one-off present, Caz told me that she’d often been asked to update the Home Sweet Home papercut to include more family members. ‘That gives me such as sweet feeling as our bundle is growing and evolving with people’s families (so to speak),’ she smiles.

And while a bouquet will shortly find its way to the compost heap, this is one gift that you’re sure to find still on display for years to come.

Why everyone needs a whipping disc: Russell Hobbs Illumina Food Processor

There are some things in life you should never feel guilty about. Never feel guilty about popping a pill when you have a headache. Paracetamol and its ilk are Nature’s Gift. Never feel guilty about getting rid of clothing beyond mending. You will not get round to making a stylish throw. Or dusters. Or sock puppets. You should also never feel guilty about using a small appliance when doing it manually is an option. Personally, I feel there’s no need to attempt to build up Popeye-style muscles in one arm by taking on tasks that could be handled by an appliance. Especially when that arm could be used for something better, like drinking wine. Or making a sock puppet. Or both.

Which is why I have a big crush on Russell Hobbs‘s Illumina Food Processor. Yes, it’s a 850W, rather stylish multipurpose kitchen tool.  Yes, it features a titanium-coated stainless-steel chopping blade and slicing, grating and shredding disks. Plus a dough tool for bread and cakes. But what I’m interested in is the whipping disk.

Whipping disc in place

Whipping disc in place

I’ll admit, it looks innocuous at first glance. But see what it does to cream.

Double cream, being blitzed

Double cream, being blitzed

You’ll also notice that the ring changes colour as you turn the machine up a notch. Not just for a flashy light show either – the colour corresponds to the setting, so you can tell at a glance how fast those blades are spinning. Unlike using a hand blender, you can simply turn the food processor on to the right setting and walk away to come back to perfectly whipped cream:

Cream, whipped to perfection

Cream, whipped to perfection

Then simply pop all the main parts in the dishwasher and get on with making your Eton Mess, eclairs or whatever indulgent creamy dessert you prefer – and enjoy it guilt-free.

Planning a holiday? Plan a housesitter first

Lately, I’ve been buying a lot of beer but not drinking any of it. Instead, it’s a naked bribe to encourage my next-door neighbour to look after my three, extremely fussy, cats while I’m away. Seeing as I can’t return the favour and that’s usually why I pop round to see him, I have to visit carrying ever-larger bribes. Next time, I’m thinking about a keg. What would solve my problem of being the neighbour who always wants something, is a house-sitting service, and I think I might have just found one.

Not my pampered cat but might as well be

Any excuse for a cat picture. Not mine but might as well be

HouseSit Match is a bit like a social networking website, except that it links homeowners with reliable housesitters – people who not only relish looking after your pampered pets but who are happy to look after your home in general. Meaning there’s someone home if awful things happen, such as burst pipes, and someone keeping an eye on things generally, from tidying away your post to keeping your home safe and secure.

The difference comes with HouseSit Match’s contracts – agree beforehand what the housesitters’ duties are and go off on holiday with full peace of mind. Most sitters come with references or a background check too.

While it might be tricky getting past the idea of a stranger in your house, the beauty of the site is that it lets you get to know the sitters in advance – some even post video and pics so you can have complete peace of mind. And if you’re still not convinced, take it from some of the experienced sitters and owners on HouseSit Match’s blog – a little light browse and I guarantee you’ll be a convert. No beer, no bother.

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Hacking, hiding and food as art – meet 2014’s kitchen trends

Kitchen trends are a bit of an elusive concept. Unlike on the catwalk, where things change in the blink of a eye, what’s hot in kitchens (yes, beyond the hob) is slow-moving, evolving gradually and subtly. However, once trends start to emerge, they’re no less striking than a shouty logo T-shirt.

According to Magnet’s latest trends report, its 8th and the first in which I’ve taken part, along with lots of interior design experts, 2014 is less about what doors and worktops you choose and more about how you use your kitchen.

Take the ‘Hide & Show’ trend – about concealing working parts of your scheme when it’s in an open-plan room for a furniture feel.

Playing hide and seek with the sink

Playing hide and seek with the sink

Similarly, more than half of those surveyed by Magnet love to have personal items on display in the kitchen with open shelving being more popular than ever before. There’s a fine balance between what you want to display and what you don’t, and how you use the space you have to achieve both.

Which leads me into hacking. I’ll be honest, I had to Google this the first time I heard it but the concept is simple – taking objects from area and turning them into something unexpected – pallets as furniture, glass knobs from bedroom furniture on your doors or kitchen cabinets as storage…

Magnet’s Pembury Oak units used as a window seat

Happy Hacking trend: Magnet’s units as a window seat

But it’s not all about design – the primary purpose of our kitchens, to cook and sometimes to eat, is still present. However, food is now just as much about theatre, display and art. Our kitchens are increasingly being created as hubs for entertaining and we want meals to be as beautiful to look at as they are nourishing. Meet the ‘Food – The New Art’ trend:

ood and Art have never been far apart

Food and Art have never been far apart

Take it one step further and think of your kitchen as a gallery. Curate displays of fresh herbs in pots, bottles of oils and colourful spices on your shelves.

I can only wonder if these trends are set to continue for years to come or if by then there’ll be a new approach to kitchen design and technology. Only time will tell.

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