pass the teapot.
 
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Today I went to a life drawing class at Bristol Drawing School with my boyfriend, Ian. It was refreshing to spend a Saturday doing something a little bit different. Before today I think the last time I picked up a piece a charcoal was during my school days. Ian's clearly the artist in the relationship, but for me it felt good to be doing something creative and has inspired me to invest in a good set of drawing pencils. I recommend giving it a go! Here's a couple of our sketches...
 
 
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A good brownie is something to behold. I am very specific about what constitutes a good brownie and very few satisfy my requirements. I learnt a long time ago not to go near the pallid cellophane-wrapped ones that adorn so many cafe counters, plonked on a plate next to the till, each one identical to it's neighbour. You can practically see the moisture being squeezed out of them as they sit there. A good brownie is one which is handmade, contains as little flour as possible (I have been known to make a delicious gluten-free variety, replacing the flour with ground almonds) and eaten whilst still warm from the oven. A brownie should have a pale brown, crisp layer on top which cracks easily to reveal a dark, dense, thick, gloopy, squishy, damp (I could go on) interior. This recipe, that I received from my friend Carol, didn't disappoint. I added half a packet of Oreo cookies to give it a twist, something that I saw Lorraine Pascale do on her TV show 'Baking Made Easy' last week (I love it). I like that it looks a bit like a brown swamp with Oreos for stepping stones. It's tastier than a swamp though (probably). You can find the recipe on my recipes page.
 
 
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Yesterday I got an unexpected visit from my family. At the end of a tough week some home comfort was just the therapy I needed. After a quick catch-up over coffee we chose to head out of the madness that is Saturday afternoon at Cabot Circus and took a stroll up the Christmas Steps. What I like about having visitors in my home town of Bristol is that it forces me away from my usual haunts, into lesser-frequented parts of town. And so it was that we ended up browsing the shops that line Colston Street. Home to two of Bristol's best secondhand bookshops and, it would seem, one of the city's best independent eateries. Feeling the tug of lunchtime hunger, The Urban Wood was our chosen venue to fulfil our foodie desires. The decor of this long and narrow setting might best be described as dark and menacing meets cheerful kitsch (large deer antlers loom over pretty fuschia flower heads popping out of jam jars), whilst the mismatched furniture ensures that the overall feel is one of comfort and relaxation rather than pretentiousness of any kind. Decor aside, service at The Urban Wood was also very impressive. The staff have achieved that rare balance of good service; nowhere near standoffish yet certainly not overbearingly keen.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves, we hadn't even sampled the food yet. The menu was promising and, on further inspection, they use only locally sourced ingredients. I chose a jacket potato with mozarella, cherry tomatoes and rocket. My fellow diners chose a blue cheese and fig salad, a pea and mint risotto and the 'Urban Wood burger'; an ambitious affair layered with a fried egg, cheese and bacon, and served with chips. The food was simple and no-fuss; attractive, satisfying and full of flavour. My potato had a skin that was thick and crisp; a sign of a jacket which has spent some time in a hot oven as opposed to a short spin in a microwave. This is a place where the chips are homemade and the chef cares more about flavours and ingredients than creating a work of food art. With dishes costing an average of seven pounds each, The Urban Wood won't even break the bank. This place beats hands-down any of the dull, spiritless chain restaurants that are peppering our high streets. I would definitely pay The Urban Wood another visit, preferably in the evening, when the lights go down and the candles are lit.
 
 
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It seems that everyone has fully embraced the idea of a 'healthy' January (me included) and I am finding it hard to find an appreciative audience for any calorie-laden baking that I suggest. So I scoured my recipe books for a (relatively) healthy muffin. With a list of ingredients that includes wholemeal flour and courgettes this is a January dream. As my fast diminishing pile of baked-goods proves, these muffins make a tasty snack any time of the day. I can't pretend I'm not excited about baking gooey, sugary, sinful treats once again but for now this is a pretty darnn tasty alternative. Have a go, you can find the recipe on my recipes page.
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Soda bread is by far the simplest loaf of bread you can make. Containing no yeast, it relies on the instant chemical reaction between the alkaline bicarbonate of soda and the acidic buttermilk causing it to rise. Science lesson over. More importantly than the chemical reactions involved, this loaf tastes delicious. It is a dense, heavy loaf with a consistency which almost resembles a scone. Considerably healthier than your average scone, however. This loaf is one to make on a lazy Sunday morning when only a doorstop of fresh toast smothered in real butter and marmite (not everyone's first choice but a weakness of mine) will suffice. Visit my recipe page if you want to try it out.
 
 
January is one of those 'nothing' months. Cold, dark, miserable and with no festivities to cheer us up. I have embarked (as most of us do post-Christmas) on a detox. I am not touching alcohol or sugar. I had so much food and drink in December I forgot what it feels like to be hungry. So I'm strangely excited about the thought of avoiding the leftover chocolates (of which there are many in all corners of the flat) and spending time in a pub without a glass of merlot in my hand. Granted, cake baking won't be quite as much fun an activity having to abstain from sampling the finishing product but no-pain-no-gain and all that. Last week, however, I was most definitely not treating my body as a temple and Christmas leftovers were duly hoovered up in various dishes (mostly savoury but one sweet - the Christmas pudding truffles were little gooey delights!) My personal favourite was a chicken and leek pie. The recipe can be modified to use turkey instead of chicken, or you could chuck in a few extra greens depending on what you have left. I also found a blackbird pie funnel in my stocking this year - what better excuse to get baking?