TEAM ZOELLA NOVEMBER 30, 2021

A Definitive Ranking of the Best Festive Drinks 2021 Has To Offer

We’ve done the hard work for you and trialled the crème de la crème of festive drinks from coffee connoisseurs Starbucks, Costa, Caffè Nero and Pret a Manger to crown the ultimate winner in the battle of Christmas beverages.

Ho, ho, ho, December is right around the corner and you know what that means? It’s socially acceptable to be drinking festive drinks ONLY for the next month (aka the best 31 days of the year)- what’s not to love? Veins flowing exclusively with gingerbread, mint choc chip and eggnog, we don’t mind if we do! Coffee shops around the country step up their festive offerings year on year, and understandably getting to the front of the Starbucks queue and having to decide between the plethora of delicious red cup options can be as stressful as watching your mum open *that* risky present that could seriously go either way. 

Thankfully, we’ve done the hard work for you (thank us later) and trialled the crème de la crème of festive drinks from coffee connoisseurs Starbucks, Costa, Caffè Nero and Pret a Manger to crown the ultimate winner in the battle of Christmas beverages. From delicious to disastrous, it’s fair to say there were some controversial and painfully honest opinions heard inside the walls of Zoella HQ, and all we can really say is Starbucks, we apologise in advance….

Costa Toffee Penny Latte – Expectation:

Saddle up people, Costa’s exclusive Quality Street flavours are back, and if that doesn’t scream Christmas in a cup we don’t know what does. This year there’s a new, golden addition to the family, in the form of the well loved Toffee Penny. Think classic Latte, blended with rich golden caramel sauce, topped with a light dairy swirl, and sprinkled with crunchy caramel toppers to perfectly capture the buttery notes of the Toffee Penny sweet. Sounds divine, but what does the team think…

Costa Toffee Penny Latte- Reality:

Holly: 2/5

Couldn’t taste the toffee or the penny, just pure milk and lack of caffeine. Not a fan. 

Charlotte: 4/5

Delicious, imo! Very milky so the toffee flavour could have been stronger. It was really good but if I hadn’t known it was toffee penny I wouldn’t have known this was the flavour specifically! 

Lareese: 2/5

I feel robbed. I was promised toffee penny and I got bad penny. Bad bad penny. I’m a cow’s milk girl though and we’ve gone all oat milk with this ranking for the sake of consistency, so maybe my tastebuds are just kicking off. The Costa Terry’s Chocolate Orange is god-tier though. 

Darcey: 4/5

Loved this one. The toffee wasn’t too sweet but was the perfect amount, usually not a fan of flavoured coffee drinks so this impressed me! 

Danielle: 2/5

For me, this was just far too creamy, a real creamy fella. If you like sweet cream more than actual coffee then, by all means, snap this up. I did get a hint of toffee penny but not enough for me to recognise it, however, I can confirm the Terry’s Chocolate Orange tastes EXACTLY like it.

Costa After Eight Hot Chocolate- Expectation:

For those who aren’t a slave to caffeine, look no further than Costa’s iconic After Eight Hot Chocolate for a slice (or sip) of true festivity whenever you need a hit of Christmassy excitement. The signature Costa Hot Chocolate has been flavoured with mint syrup, finished with a light creamy topping and chocolate dusting. Psst: it also comes with a free After Eight chocolate thin atop the lid – what’s not to love?!

Costa After Eight Hot Chocolate- Reality:

Holly: 5/5

Absolutely astounding- best thing I’ve ever had in my mouth and I’ll be ordering this every day until January. Thank you Costa for bringing this gloriousness into my life. 

Charlotte: 5/5

Tastes just like a blended After Eight- an absolute must to try this festive season! Not too sweet despite how chocolatey this dreamboat of a drink was, and so very silky smooth too. Goes down like a treat!

Lareese: 5/5

That is a taste sensation. Honour your tastebuds and order one immediately.

Darcey: 5/5

5/5 – OMG THIS IS UNREAL, I’d give it a 10 if I could.

Danielle: 3/5 

I don’t love After Eights so I’m probably not the best person to score this. I wouldn’t order it myself but I can confirm it tastes just like the sweet treats and I think a mint choc lover would be all over this!

Caffè Nero Gingerbread Latte- Expectation:

The classic Caffè Nero latte we know and love has been Christmasified this season, with a generous dose of gingerbread syrup and topped with a dusting of cinnamon- mmhm! If classic festive flavours are your jam then look no further for a dose of quintessential Christmas that will have you more excited for the 25th Dec than Buddy the Elf.

Caffè Nero Gingerbread Latte- Reality:

Holly: 3/5

Genuinely confused, I couldn’t tell you if I liked it or not. Not very gingerbready but as coffees go, I wouldn’t kick him off the table. 

Charlotte: 2/5

Not an overwhelming gingerbread flavour but still nice and festive overall. A bit of a perfume-y smell which is slightly off-putting and a bit too sweet. 

Lareese: 3/5

It smells a lot better than it tastes. And it smells a lot like artificial arse. Woah, who shat in my Cornflakes (or my coffee) this morning? I’m being so savage aren’t I?! 

Darcey: 2/5

Mainly marked down as I must admit it does smell slightly like a Homesense candle and the taste is how I’d imagine that smell to taste…

Danielle: 4/5

For me, this was probably the drink I’m most likely to order out of the bunch. It was still quite sweet and creamy but the spicy ginger gives it a bit more of an edge, and it definitely felt quite festive! 

Caffè Nero Mint Choc Hot Choc- Expectation:

A hot, milky chocolate drink with mint syrup, topped with chocolate chips- yes please! This marvellously minty addition to the Caffè Nero menu is a slice of Christmas joy for those who want a balance of cooling, zesty flavours with a classic hint of satisfying sweetness. Add marshmallows for an extra boost of sugary deliciousness and you’ve got yourself a sweet treat you won’t want to reach the end of.      

Caffè Nero Mint Choc Hot Choc- Reality:

Holly: 4/5

Not particularly minty but still made me happy inside. Mint choc chip for the win. 

Charlotte: 2/5

Nice if you like mint but it has a slight toothpaste flavour so probably wouldn’t order again. Average and not overly memorable, aside from its Colgate-ness.

Lareese: 4/5

It’s no Costa After Eight but it’s certainly up there. I’m a simp for the mint choc combo. 

Darcey: 1.5/5

I really didn’t love this one- sorry Nero! I didn’t think it was very minty and the aftertaste was a tad strange.

Danielle: 2/5 

A good hit of mint but not as good as the ol’ After Eight. 

Starbucks Eggnog Latte- Expectation:

A classic holiday flavour, this is one to order if you fancy channeling traditional Christmas to the max- whack Home Alone on the telly and boom, you’ve completed Christmas. Featuring the signature Starbucks espresso, rich steamed eggnog and topped with a seasonal sprinkling of nutmeg, feel yourself being warmed from the inside out with this creamy mug of joy- it would be wrong to make it through December without one!

Starbucks Eggnog Latte- Reality:

Holly: 1/5

I can think of nothing I would like to do less than drink this again. It reminded me of something I would usually spit out, do with that what you will. 

Charlotte: 1/5

Tastes like cow- something I always find when I have a bit of dairy. I think maybe it was the combination of oat milk and eggnog mix that made it quite overpowering and a tad unpleasant if I’m honest. 

Lareese: 1/5

Hard pass. Not for me mam. It’s giving paintstripper with a hint of something creamy on the turn. 

Darcey: 1/5 

Unfortunately as a non-dairy drinker the eggnog aspect can’t be escaped and so it tasted way too milky for me- only buy if you drink milk / like an eggnog tipple. 

Danielle: 1/5

Wow what a beverage, if you like eggnog then you might like this but I just can’t fathom how anyone would. It tasted quite chemical with a boozy lingering flavour, but without any actual alcohol in it so it’s a no from me.

Starbucks Caramel Waffle Latte- Expectation:

Caramel, waffle, latte- what’s not to love? Winter waffle sauce forms the foundations of this joyous addition to the Starbucks’ menu, offering a sweet, sweet hit of deliciousness in a less traditional Christmas flavour. The signature Starbucks espresso + waffle sauce + whipped cream and spiced caramel waffle crunch topping = a sweet tooth dream. We’ll have a Venti please…

Starbucks Caramel Waffle Latte- Reality:

Holly: 1/5

Really unpleasant. Tasted like nail polish remover, not a hint of caramel or waffle. 

Charlotte: 1/5

Tastes like a bath bomb, and that’s simply not what you want in a drink. Strong aftertaste that stays with you- not my vibe!

Lareese: 1/5

Sorry to be dramatic but that felt a lot like torture. Have we asked for too much by pushing Christmas on coffee? Darcey hits the nail on the head – it’s like sipping suds.  

Darcey: 1/5

Honestly save your money on this one, it’s so incredibly sweet and artificial tasting it’s really unpleasant. It has a soapy taste that lingers for longer than I’d like.

Danielle: 0/5

I didn’t think drinks could get much worse than the eggnog latte until I drank this. Hard pass, weird chemical flavour, just horrendous in every way. 

Pret Popcorn Hot Chocolate- Expectation:

Love the classic Pret Popcorn Bar? Look no further for your new December obsession. Combining the roasted popcorn notes of Pret’s popcorn syrup, silky steamed milk and topped with a swirl of whipped cream and a sprinkling of chocolate powder, this unconventional Christmas beverage is everything that’s right in the world in one red, festive cup.  

Pret Popcorn Hot Chocolate- Reality:

Holly: 4/5

Very nice actually, different to your classic flavours but minus one point because it didn’t make me feel festive. 

Charlotte: 3/5

Yum! I’m definitely getting popcorn vibes which is preferable to some of the other drinks that bear no resemblance to their supposed flavour, but still a tiny bit too sweet for me!

Lareese: 4/5

I’m not getting a great deal of popcorn – maybe like the slight dust that greets you when crushed into a cinema floor.. Subtle but not overly festive. The taste is pretty up there though and the cup is 10/10l – I’d go as far to say it’s my favourite design of the year. 

Darcey: 4/5

Big fan of this! You can really taste the popcorn and the sweet and salty aspect is very nice.

Danielle: 4/5

I found this beverage delicious! A bit different, not much popcorn flavour but enough to understand where they were going with it! Not particularly festive but I’d drink this again in a heartbeat! 

Final thoughts:

Expectations vs reality doesn’t get more savage than this, and it’s clear Team Zoella have some strong opinions when it comes to finding the perfect Christmas beverage… 

Coming out on top was the undisputed winner and divine deliciousness that was Costa’s After Eight Hot Chocolate, scoring an average of 4.6 out of 5- worthy of a Paul Hollywood handshake and quite honestly better than sex. On the other end of the spectrum, we have Starbucks’ sad and sorry Eggnog Latte, totalling an average of 1 out of 5 and inciting outrage that this bev ever made it past the testing stage. Try again next year @ Starbs. 

Which hot beverage has made it to the top of your Christmas list this festive season?

TEAM ZOELLA NOVEMBER 29, 2021

7 Festive Dessert Ideas For Anyone Who Wants to Hard Pass on Christmas Pudding

Grab a spoon, a fork or your bare hands for all we care, here are 7 desserts that deserve a place at your dinner table this December. Now read the room and f*ck off, figgy pudding.

Christmas Pudding is one dessert that divides the nation. 

Your dad is likely the only person who looks forward to this boozy British enigma every year, complete with lashings of brandy butter, of course. Staunch traditionalists and dads aside, no one classes Christmas Pudding as a serious Yuletide contender, not when sticky toffee pudding breathes the same air. Any dessert that insists on flames is overcompensating for something. The heat carries it.

With that in mind, we’ve foraged the internet for the best unconventional Christmas Day desserts, some of which take inspiration from the traditional boozy mound adored by dads and others that completely disrupt the status quo. 

Grab a spoon, a fork or your bare hands for all we care, here are 7 desserts that deserve a place at your dinner table this December. Now read the room and f*ck off, figgy pudding. 

Flourless Chocolate Cloud Cake 

Flourless chocolate cake? We know, we were sceptical too, but this is one of Richard Sax’s most iconic recipes so trust the process! Plus, any cake that needs to look like it’s given up on life and caved in on itself is a host’s best friend, for the margin for error is conveniently roomy. Don’t blame us if your dinner guests fall silent. The cake knows how to work a room. 

SERVES 8
PREP: 30 MINS COOK: 40 MINS
MEDIUM

  1. Heat the oven to 175°C
  2. Line the bottom of a 20cm springform pan with baking parchment (do not butter the pan or parchment).
  3. Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of gently simmering water. Ensure it’s not touching the water. Once melted, remove from the heat and
  4. In two small bowls, separate 4 of the egg yolks (keep hold of the whites for later). In a large bowl, mix 2 whole eggs with the 4 egg yolks and 100g of the sugar until just combined. Add in the melted chocolate slowly. Whisk in the butter until smooth. Whisk in the cognac or Grand Marnier and the orange zest.
  5. Using a handheld mixer and a separate bowl, mix the 4 egg whites for 2 minutes until foamy. Add the remaining 100g sugar gradually and beat until it’s glossy with soft peaks that hold their shape (about 5 minutes more).
  6. Gently fold a ¼ of the beaten egg whites into the chocolate mixture. This is the satisfying part so take your time. It will soothe your soul. Slowly work in the rest of the egg whites.
  7. Scrape the batter into the pan and smooth the top.
  8. Set the pan on a rimmed baking sheet and bake on a rack in the centre of the oven for 35-40 mins until the top is puffy and cracked.
  9. Let the cake cool in the pan on the rack so it collapses in the centre. Don’t panic – it’s meant to do that!
  10. Whilst the cake cools, whip the cream, confectioners’ sugar and vanilla in a large bowl with a handheld mixer until soft peaks form.
  11. Using a spatula, fill the sunken centre of the cake with the whipped cream to the edges of the crater. Dust with cocoa powder for a festive touch.
  12. Run the edge of a knife around the edge of the cake then remove the sides of the pan and cut into hunks to serve.

Source: Food 52

Croissant and Marmalade Bread & Butter Pudding

Want a way to step up your Christmas Pudding game? We give you > pastries slathered in marmalade and sprinkled with chocolate. This new twist on the beloved classic bread and butter pudding gives this traditional family treat the kind of modern glow up that’s guaranteed to have your guests diving in for seconds. 

SERVES 6
PREP: 30 MINS COOK: 30 MINS
EASY

  1. Heat the cream and milk in a pan until it’s close to boiling then remove from the heat. Beat the egg yolks and sugar in a bowl, add the cream and stir. Go in with the Grand Marnier / orange-flavoured liqueur and set aside.
  2. Butter a 1.5 litre ovenproof dish. Spread each pastry half with marmalade and layer into the dish. Sprinkle with choc!
  3. Pour the custard mix over the croissants and leave to soak for 15 mins.
  4. Preheat the oven to 180°C/fan 160°C/gas 4. Bake through for 25-30 minutes until softly set (slightly wobbly) and golden.

Source: Delicious

Clementine & Chocolate Christmas Pudding

This alternative Christmas Pudding creation from baker and food writer, Edd Kimber, spells the end of the brandy butter’s longstanding reign as Kimber calls for chocolate sauce this time around. Standing ovation for this controversial stroke of genius, please. Someone will have to break the news to pa but other than that *slight* inconvenience, it’s the modern meets retro remix every feuding family needs on their side. 

SERVES
PREP: COOK:
EASY

  1. Lightly grease a 1.1 litre pudding basin and line the base with a disc of baking parchment. Put the dried fruit and peel in a bowl and pour over the Armagnac. Set aside for a few hours to soak.
  2. Using an electric hand whisk, beat the butter, muscovado sugar and clementine zest into a bowl until light and fluffy. Add the eggs in one at a time, beating well between each.
  3. In another bowl mix together the flour, cocoa, spices, breadcrumbs and almonds, then add to the mixture, along with the soaked dried fruit, chocolate, apple and clementine juice. Mix with a wooden spoon until combined.
  4. Scrape the mixture into the pudding basin and level off. Put a sheet of baking parchment on top of a sheet of foil and fold a pleat in the middle. Place foil-side up on top of the pudding and fold the excess down over the sides of the basin. Tie with string to secure in place and cut off any excess foil/parchment.
  5. Fill a large saucepan halfway with water and place an upturned saucer on the bottom. Bring the water to the boil and put the pudding on top of the saucer. Reduce the temperature to a simmer, then cover and steam for 3 hours 30 minutes. Keep an eye on it, checking every so often and topping up with water if needed.
  6. While the pudding is steaming, make the candied clementines. Preheat the oven to 100°C, gas mark ¼. Put the sugar and 200ml water in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the clementine slices, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Cook until the fruit looks translucent (about 2 hours). Carefully lift the slices from the syrup and place on a parchment-lined baking tray. Bake for about 45-60 minutes or until they’re a little less wet (just slightly tacky). Set aside until needed.
  7. Carefully lift the pudding from the pan and uncover. Invert onto a plate and set aside. For the sauce, put the chocolate and cream in a small pan and stir together over a low heat until smooth. Pour over the pudding and decorate with a few of the clementine slices (the rest can be left to dry overnight and then kept in a sealed container for up to 2 weeks).

Source: Waitrose Food

Tutti Frutti Pavlova with Marshmallow Meringue 

Edible centrepiece? Completed it pal. Topped with sweet, syrupy glacé cherries, pistachios and mixed peel, you’d be forgiven for telling your relatives this is a mock meringue, purely for display purposes only. “Not to be eaten this one, sorry Aunty B. It’s polystyrene. Plenty of Christmas Pudding leftover though…”

SERVES 6 -8
PREP: 60 MINS COOK: 60 MINS
MEDIUM

  1. Preheat the oven to 150C/130C Fan/Gas 2 and lightly grease a large baking tray. Using a pencil, trace around a 25cm/10in plate onto baking paper and then flip it over onto the greased baking tray.
  2. To make the meringue, whisk the egg whites until soft peaks start to form, then slowly add the sugar a spoonful at a time, allowing the crystals to melt. As soon as you have used all the sugar and you have stiff peaks, add the vinegar, cornflour and vanilla and whisk one last time to incorporate.
  3. Spoon or pipe the meringue into the circle on the baking paper, as neatly or roughly as you like. Create a slight indent in the centre, where the cream will sit.
  4. Bake in the oven for 1 hour. When the hour is up, turn the oven off and leave the meringue in there until the oven is totally cold. Pop onto a serving dish or leave in an airtight container until you are ready to serve.
  5. To make the filling, whisk the cream in a bowl with the icing sugar and cornflour until you have soft peaks. Add about half of the chopped cherries, pistachios and mixed peel and gently fold through, reserving the rest for the top.
  6. Take two spoons and dollop the cream mixture onto the meringue. Finally, scatter with the rest of the cherries, pistachios and mixed peel and sprinkle all over with the chocolate shavings.

Source: Nadiya Hussain

Boozy Sticky Toffee Trifles

Forget words of affirmation, this is the only love language that matters. Cinnamon whipped cream mingles with layers of sticky toffee cake, butterscotch pudding, whisky and candied pecans to create a dessert that’ll single handedly see you through the Queen’s speech. Sure, these merry trifles can be quite time consuming, but you can’t hurry love. 

SERVES 6-8
PREP: 45 MINS COOK: 60 MINS
MEDIUM

Butterscotch pudding:

1.     Melt the butter in a medium saucepan.

2.     Add the brown sugar and salt, and stir to combine. Remove from heat.

3.     In a medium bowl, whisk together 1/4 cup of the milk with the cornstarch until well combined.

4.     Whisk in the egg and egg yolks.

5.     Pour the remainder of the milk into the brown sugar mixture and whisk to combine.

6.     Whisk in the egg/cornstarch mixture.

7.     Return the pan to the heat, and bring the mixture to the boil. Whisk frequently so no clumps form.

8.     Once the mixture begins to boil, reduce the heat to low and whisk constantly for an additional minute.

9.     Once the pudding thickens, remove from heat and stir in the whisky and vanilla extract.

10.  If clumps have formed, pour the mixture through a strainer.

11.  Pour the mixture into a large heat proof bowl and press some plastic wrap over the surface of the pudding to prevent a skin from forming.

12.  Let the pudding chill in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours.

The cake:

1.     Preheat the oven to 180 °C (160°C fan)

2.     Grease an 8×8 pan.

3.     In a small saucepan, combine the dates with 3/4 cup of water.

4.     Cook over medium heat for about 15 minutes.

5.     Puree the dates and water in a blender and cool.

6.     In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

7.     With an electric mixer, beat the butter and brown sugar on medium high speed until light and creamy.

8.     Add the egg, vanilla extract, and date puree. Beat to combine.

9.     Add the flour mixture and beat on low until just combined.

10.  Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 30-35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean.

11.  Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for about 10 minutes.

12.  Invert the cake onto the rack and leave to cool completely.

The toffee sauce: 

1.     Combine the sugar, cream, and butter in a saucepan.

2.     Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly.

3.     Continue to cook over medium heat for an additional 3 minutes.

4.     Remove from heat and add the whisky and vanilla extract.

5.     Stir to combine.

Cinnamon whipped cream:

1.     With an electric mixer (if using a stand mixer, use the whisk attachment), beat the heavy cream until soft peaks form.

2.     Add the sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla and beat just until you get stiff peaks.

Assemble:

1.     In a large bowl, crumble the cake into pieces.

2.     Pour the toffee sauce (rewarm to a pourable consistency if it has thickened) over the cake and mix together until the sauce is evenly distributed.

3.     In a wine glass (or container of your choice) add a layer of the cake mixture at the bottom of the glass.

4.     Top with a layer of butterscotch pudding.

5.     Add a layer of whipped cream (I used a piping bag to do this).

6.     Top with candied pecans. Repeat this process.

7.     Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Source: The Cake Merchant

Baileys Tiramisu

For an easy no-bake option you can whip together in 45 mins flat (+3 hours for chilling), look no further than this tipsy Tiramisu. Sponge fingers soaked in coffee and sweet almond liqueur and topped with Baileys Irish Cream – this spongy wintertime dessert is the perfect way to conclude your Christmas day dinner. 

SERVES
PREP: 40 MINS COOK: 3 HRS
EASY

1.     Mix the coffee and amaretto in a shallow bowl. Whip the cream, mascarpone, sugar, Baileys and vanilla together in another bowl until it forms soft peaks. Transfer to a large piping bag with a wide, round nozzle (about 2cm) and chill.

2.     Dip the sponge fingers into the coffee for a few seconds on each side until they’re well soaked but not collapsing, then add a single layer to a 20cm serving dish, using about half of the sponge fingers.

3.     Pipe over half of the cream, then layer on more soaked sponge fingers, and pipe the remaining cream, in blobs, in an even layer over the top. Chill until ready to serve for at least 3 hours. Sieve over the cocoa powder to cover all the cream just before serving.

 

Source: Olive Magazine

Gingerbread Cheesecake

You don’t get more festive than gingerbread, so if you want a failsafe Christmas crowd-pleaser with all the chef’s kiss appeal, look no further than this winter spice cheesecake showstopper. 

SERVES
PREP: COOK:
EASY

For the Base:

  1.   Preheat your oven to 220C/200C fan. 
  2.   Blitz your Biscuits to a fine crumb, add in the melted butter and blitz again.
  3.   Press the biscuit down into the bottom of a 20cm/8″ deep springform tin. Leave to the side for now. 

For the Cheesecake:

  1.   Mix your cream cheese on its own till smooth (10-20 seconds). 
  2.   Gradually add in the light brown sugar, black treacle, and plain flour, without mixing for too long. 
  3.   Add in the vanilla, ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg, and then gradually add in the eggs one at a time. The less you mix the better. 
  4.   Once mixed, fold through the soured cream, and then pour the cheesecake mix on top of the base. 
  5.   Bake in the oven for 10 minutes, and then lower the temperature to 110°C /90°C fan, and bake for 35-45 minutes. It should have a small wobble in the middle, but mainly be solid. 
  6.   Once baked, leave to cool in the oven with the door ajar, for 2 hours. 
  7.   Once cooled, leave to set in the fridge overnight. 

For the Decoration:

  1.     Whip together your cream, icing sugar and ginger until thick and pipeable!
  2.     Take your cheesecake out of the tin, smother some cream on the cheesecake, and then pipe on some swirls.
  3.     Add on some Gingerbread Men for decoration, and sprinkle over some gingerbread crumbs and sprinkles.  

Source: Jane’s Patisserie

TEAM ZOELLA NOVEMBER 28, 2021

30 Dirty Santa Gifts The Whole Family Will Want To Steal

Dirty Santa, Stealing Santa, White Elephant, or Switch, Steal, Unwrap- whatever alias it goes by in your household, this classic family game (read: argument starter) is one the festive season wouldn't be the same without.

Dirty Santa, Stealing Santa, White Elephant, or Switch, Steal, Unwrap- whatever alias it goes by in your household, this classic family game (read: argument starter) is one the festive season wouldn’t be the same without. For those who are unfamiliar, this cheeky Christmas pastime involves each guest bringing a gift that can be enjoyed by all, plonking it in the middle of the circle (or into a Santa’s sack for ultimate xmas joy), before drawing a player to go first, selecting a gift on your turn, and then when the presents run out, stealing from your fellow participants. For a full rundown of how to prepare for your own Dirty Santa extravaganza, check out dirtysantarules.com for all the ins and outs you need to know.

Finding the right gift for this free-for-all present exchange need not give you a headache though, as our comprehensive guide has all you could need to cater for every kind of pal or Auntie you see approx twice a year. Think a Mal Paper gratitude journal, bath oils from Gaia, inspirational reads from Matt Haig, delicious sweet treats from Biscuiteers or a Timothee Chalamet candle, just because. If you’re really sneaky you could even attempt leaving with your own present contribution, because they’re simply too good to part with…

*This post contains ad-affiliate links 

TEAM ZOELLA NOVEMBER 26, 2021

‘Tis The Season To Wrap Up – Looking After Your Sexual Health At Christmas

Party season is well and truly underway and with it comes a labyrinth of sudden feelings and urges to navigate.

Health is wealth or so the saying goes and as we head towards the season of giving, the one gift we don’t want to receive this Christmas – or indeed re-gift – is an STI, thank you very much. 

With all the merriment in the air and alcohol-fuelled nights impairing our judgement, the season can do us dirty, convincing us that the thrill of a one-night stand without protection has main character energy. Ah, the classic ‘do I fancy you, or is it just December?’ mind fuckery. Jägerbombs have a lot to answer for. 

Party season is well and truly underway and with it comes a labyrinth of sudden feelings and urges to navigate. It can be a notoriously frisky time of year and with free prosecco a’flowing, it’s easy to slip into risk-taking behaviour. What can we say, there’s just something about the festivities that makes us more likely to get a little more amorous. 

With that in mind, we’ve got a few golden rules, tips and tricks to have up your sleeve to ensure it’s the most wonderful time of the year for both you and your sexual health. From STI screenings to sex toy hygiene, here’s a run-down of everything you need to know.

The cardinal rules 

Use protection – Adulthood is great and everything but STIs, not so much! Enter: condoms, the one accessory you can’t be without for party season. However you identify, carrying one is not only responsible but empowering and your best defence against sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies. Having safe sex is sexy, folks! You can pick up condoms for free from your GP or a sexual health clinic or purchase them from the pharmacy or supermarket.  

If you take the contraceptive pill, wear the patch or have the injection, it’s important you’re covered and have enough provisions over the Christmas period. If getting a GP appointment isn’t possible, a sexual health clinic will be able to help you. 

If you’ve had unprotected sex in the last five days and require emergency contraception, contact NHS 111 (England) or pop into your nearest Boots store to have a friendly and confidential chat with the pharmacist. You can also buy the emergency morning-after pill online at Boots in case you need it in the future. You’ll be asked to fill out a questionnaire so a pharmacist can check if your chosen pill is suitable. 

Pee after sex / genital simulation – UTIs just LOVE to find us at Christmas. To reduce the risk, flush out any bacteria from your urethra caused by intercourse by peeing after sex. On the subject of UTIs – avoid sitting around in damp workout clothes or bathing suits and don’t switch from anal to vaginal intercourse without changing the condom. 

Ditch the douching – as tempting as it is to cleanse your yoni in a post-sex cleanup, this can often do more harm than good. If you do want to have a post-action cleanse, stick to good old fashioned plain warm water and clean the vulva. Don’t venture inside as this can upset your pH levels. Your vagina is a self-cleaning goddess, leave her be. Same with penis-having people – when faced with the dilemma of whether to dunk or not to dunk after sex (s/o to *that* penis beaker Mumsnet post. Truly the gift that keeps on giving), avoid using soaps and scented body wash on the head of the penis. As for the penis beaker, there’s really no need. Keep things simple and stick to showering with warm water. 

Stay hydrated – not only does it help preserve vaginal lubrication, but it also goes hand-in-hand with peeing after sex. Stay hydrated, have regular bathroom breaks, and reduce your risk of UTIs. Simple. 

Getting checked for Sexually Transmitted Infections

STIs are predominantly spread by sexual contact, including oral, vaginal or anal sex, so even if you didn’t have penetrative sex, you can still be at risk of infections and passing an STI to a sexual partner. Some STIs can also be spread via blood or skin-to-skin contact.  

Different infections have different incubation periods (the time between doing the deed and onset of symptoms) but most clinics recommend getting tested as soon as possible to be on the safe side. 

People can react differently to the same STI and sometimes there are no noticeable symptoms at all, which is why getting tested regularly, particularly between new partners and after unprotected sex, is the only way to know for certain and start the year with a clean bill of health. 

Here’s a list of some general symptoms to be aware of:

  • Discharge from the penis or vagina
  • Pain when urinating
  • Pain during sex
  • Blisters, sores or itchiness around the genitals
  • Rashes on the skin
  • Abdominal pain
  • Strong odour
  • Headaches
  • Bleeding between periods 
  • Inflammation

What to expect from an STI screening 

Whilst the thought of discussing intimate details with a stranger (albeit a professional one) doesn’t exactly scream Merry Christmas, remember this is their job – they’ve heard and seen it all before. 

The test itself is straightforward and confidential. The initial consultation usually involves discussing the reason for your visit, how many sexual partners you’ve had, what type of sex you’ve engaged in, how often you use protection, potential symptoms you’re experiencing and your medical history – this all helps to inform your screening and what test is appropriate for you.

Depending on what you need to be tested for, you’ll either give a urine, blood or swab sample (vagina / anus / cheek / throat) which will be sent off to a lab for examination. In some instances, the clinician will also perform an external examination, for example, to diagnose genital warts and herpes. 

Many clinics offer rapid testing for HIV but other test results can take up to 2 weeks. Your clinician will ask you how you’d prefer to receive your results i.e via text, email or a phone call. 

What do if you test positive for an STI 

Whilst this might not be the Crimbo surprise you were hoping for, it’s important you know you’re not alone. Anyone who is sexually active is at risk – more than 1 million STIs are acquired every day worldwide and you certainly won’t be the first or the last person to deal with one. 

Some STIs can cause serious health issues if left undetected so even if it doesn’t feel like it, it’s better than you’re in the know. If your test comes back positive (meaning you have a sexually transmitted infection), your GP or sexual health nurse will be able to tell you the next steps regarding medication or treatment. Whilst not all STIs/STDs are curable (herpes, HIV, Hepatitis B, HPV) most infections can be eliminated with antibiotics and antiviral medication within a few days/weeks. 

Informing your sexual partner/s

Depending on the STI, your health care provider might ask about sexual partners you’ve had over the last few months so you can discuss who needs to be notified. 

Letting your sexual partners know they need to get tested isn’t anyone’s idea of fun alas, it’s a conversation that needs to be had to protect their health and prevent passing the infection to others. If you feel unable to inform them yourself, the Health Advisers will be able to notify them on your behalf without revealing your identity. This is called partner notification. 

Keeping up to date with your body admin  

It might not be the most thrilling of jobs to tick off your list at the start of the new year, but if you’ve had a particularly (ahem) busy Christmas, a visit to the sexual health clinic or GP for a full MOT should be as routine as washing your hair. 

For anyone struggling to fit in a 3-hour appointment to the walk-in clinic (read: everybody), free at-home self-test kits are available online. Please note access to self-tests is dependent on your location. 

Visit Sexual Health London | Visit Sexual Health 24

How to do right by your sex toys: 

Lesson one: sanitisation. 

Whether you’ve just received a new plaything for Christmas or you’re a seasoned user of The Poet, keeping your toys in tip-top condition and bacteria-free will extend their shelf-life and keep your genitals happy too. Win win! 

How you clean your toys will depend on what material they’re made from however, regardless of whether they’re porous or non-porous, it’s a good idea to clean any toy straight after use, especially if you’re sharing it with your partner. 

We get it, cleaning your intimate accessories is a bit of a buzzkill so if you’re looking for an excuse to get out of cleaning just use a condom on your sex toys every time. Pesky germs, be gone! 

In terms of genital-friendly products, a mild unscented soap will do the job. Your vaginal microflora is a sensitive soul, so scented soap is a no-no as it can disrupt your vagina’s pH balance (which can lead to infections FYI). 

If your toy is made from porous materials, usually elastomer or latex, they might get warped with exposure to hot water. If in doubt, always consult your trusty instructions to check you’re not going to do any damage. A broken vibrator is not conducive to a holly jolly Christmas. 

For vibrators, it’s best to wipe them down with a warm damp dishcloth and unscented soap. 

Post-play wipes and sprays serve a purpose for immediate cleaning but you’ll need to follow up with a thorough routine with water and soap as soon as you can. 

The moral of the story: treat your genitals with kindness this Christmas and do your post-wank washing up.

Storing your sex toys 

Whilst we’re all guilty of plonking our precious vibrators in our bedside drawer to rub shoulders with the miscellaneous (Vicks nasal inhaler anyone?), dust and lint does not a happy vagina make. And a vibrator with a funky menthol pine needle kick will certainly make for an angry one. 

Protecting the goods with a satin bag will solve all your problems and should anyone be nosy enough to trip across your techno-coloured collection, they’ll have one more barrier to get through.  

The risk of infection isn’t just limited to the vagina. The rectum is home to all kinds of bacteria so if you’re using a toy anally, the same applies. Do your washing up and stow them away nicely. 

TEAM ZOELLA NOVEMBER 25, 2021

The Magpie Society: Two For Joy is Here! Catch Up with One For Sorrow’s Almighty Cliffhanger…

Thanks to that almighty cliffhanger, the end of The Magpie Society: One For Sorrow kept us up until the early hours feeling like we’d been robbed of our whodunnit revelation…

Before you tuck into the second book in The Magpie Society duology, here’s a look back at what happened in the closing chapters of One For Sorrow…

Thanks to that almighty cliffhanger, the end of The Magpie Society: One For Sorrow kept us up until the early hours feeling like we’d been robbed of our whodunnit revelation…

Who killed Lola Radcliffe?!

The WKL? podcast raises the question of whether Lola’s death was an accident, suicide or cold-blooded murder. As the book unfolds, chalk and cheese students Audrey and Ivy form an unlikely alliance as they investigate Lola’s death, coming up against the mysterious and esoteric Magpie Society in the process.

By the end of One For Sorrow, Clover Mirth, who was revealed to be the podcast host, is missing and if the mysterious note and two hour voice recording Audrey and Ivy have discovered is anything to go by, its sounds like the Magpies have got to her. With another mystery on their hands, what fresh hell will be brewing at Illumen Hall, next?

Or should we say, ‘ILL OMEN HALL’.

The Magpie Society: Two For Joy

The follow up we’ve all been waiting for has nearly landed and with it comes more juicy boarding school secrets.

Determined to bring their fellow student Lola’s killer to justice, Audrey and Ivy find themselves embroiled in another mystery when their friend Clover disappears in suspicious circumstances.

Their only clue is a mysterious piece of paper taped under the desk, left by the enigmatic Magpie Society. With time running out and the police baffled, Audrey and Ivy must delve deeper than ever into the dark secrets that their school is hiding.

But someone is playing a deadly game. And to beat them, Audrey and Ivy have to start rewriting the rules…

Block out your weekend and prepare to be the flaky friend with other Illumen Hall commitments. Let the book hangover commence!

Purchase Two For Joy from Bookshop.org here!

TEAM ZOELLA NOVEMBER 25, 2021

Team Zoella’s Black Friday Baskets

To help you narrow down what to snap up from beauty to fashion, homeware to tech and everything in between, Team Zoella are sharing their BF baskets and the items that will be arriving on our doorsteps in the next couple of weeks.

Get your debit card number memorised and your Safari tabs open because the shopping event of the year is finally upon us, and preparation for nabbing the ultimate bargains and discounted steals is essential, people! That’s right, the Black Friday and Cyber Week sales (aka a shopaholic’s wet dream) are out in full force, and whether you’re shopping for yourself or organising Christmas gifts before December has even hit, avoiding panic-induced ‘add to cart’ moments is always preferable. There will be no buyer’s regret in these parts!

Falling the day after Thanksgiving in the states, Black Friday 2021 is on the 26th of November, and our most loved brands including Olaplex, ASOS, Neom, Love Honey, The White Company and more really understood the assignment when it came to offering a bargain it’s impossible to scroll past…

To help you narrow down what to snap up from beauty to fashion, homeware to tech and everything in between, Team Zoella are sharing their BF baskets and the items that will be arriving on our doorsteps in the next couple of weeks. Prepare to see your Hermes driver more than your actual friends and fam this November. Sorry ’bout it.

Danielle – Gadgets

Gadgets, tech and higher ticket items are my go-to when shopping for Black Friday as you end up getting such a good deal. It’s worth doing your homework but these are the items I can’t wait to snap up, they also make incredible gifts. First off this NEOM diffuser fills the air with relaxing scents. Secondly the Womanizer Duo Rechargeable G-Spot and Clitoral Stimulator, this toy has such incredible reviews online and from friends, Black Friday is the perfect time to make the investment. Next up is a steamer, I’ve been wanting one for a while as it’s so much easier than ironing and you can take it away with you. What better time than to finally buy a Shark vacuum and see what all the fuss is about, this one looks incredible and stores so compactly! Finally is a Nespresso machine as mine is on its last legs, this one has everything you need as well as the milk foamer without breaking the bank.

*Marks & Spencer, NEOM NEOM Wellbeing Pod Essential Oil Diffuser, WAS £95.00 NOW £76.00 
*Love Honey, Womanizer Duo Rechargeable G-Spot and Clitoral Stimulator, WAS £179.99 NOW £143.99

*Selfridges, STEAMERY Cirrus No.2 Travel Steamer, WAS £110.00 NOW £99.00
*Amazon, Shark Anti Hair Wrap Corded Stick Vacuum Cleaner WAS £269.99 NOW £178.99
*Amazon, Nespresso 11360 Inissia Coffee Machine with Aeroccino WAS £219.00 NOW £199.99

Darcey – Beauty

I love a good deal on all things beauty on Black Friday, it’s the perfect time to stock up on your favourite products or try something new while it’s at a cheaper price. I’m always looking for Olaplex cheaper, so that’s the first on my list to snap up! I recently got curtain bangs cut in and (as always) I’ve been influenced by Tik Tok to try the Ouai Matte Pomade to keep them in place all day, so a good purchase for any fellow bangs people out there. I’ll also be stocking up on the Ashley Graham x St Tropez self-tan as it is SO GOOD. I’ve had my eye on a Ghd Hot Brush for a while too so with 20% off it’s the best time to invest. Laura Mercier powder is another staple to stock up on while it’s cheaper and for any fellow oily peeps like me, Farmacy have good discounts on Beauty Bay and their Daily Greens moisturiser is oil-free and just perfect for oily complexions, give it a go you won’t regret it!

*Beauty Bay, OLAPLEX OLAPLEX HAIR PERFECTOR NO 3, WAS £25.00 NOW £22.25
*Look Fantastic, OUAI OUAI MATTE POMADE, WAS £16.00 NOW £12.80
*Beauty Bay, ST. TROPEZ TAN X ASHLEY GRAHAM GLOW KIT, WAS £38.00 NOW £22.75
*GHD, Rise Hot Brush, WAS £169.00 NOW £135.00
*John Lewis, Laura Mercier Loose Setting Powder, Translucent, WAS £33.50 NOW £25.60
*Beauty Bay, FARMACY DAILY GREENS OIL-FREE GEL MOISTURIZER, WAS £36.75 NOW £27.55

Maddie – Baby Bits

There are no two ways about it, having a child isn’t cheap and for something so small, they seem to require a lot of “stuff”. Of course, not all of it is classed as essential but from experience, a lot of the non-essentials can make your life a lot easier. So why not make the most of all the best discounts available when you’ve got the chance, especially on some of those higher ticket or more luxury nice to have items you’ve been lusting after for your little ones! These were some of my favourite products which would also make excellent gift ideas.

Aden + Anais, cotton muslin squares, WAS £19.65 NOW £13.96
*Amazon, Mamas & Papas Baby Snug Seat and Activity Tray, WAS £49.00 NOW £44.00
*Selfridges, BINIBAMBA LTD Sheepskin pram snuggler, WAS £95.00 NOW £76.00
*Selfridges, TIBA + MARL Elwood changing rucksack, WAS £150.00 NOW £120.00
*The White Company, JELLYCAT Bashful Bunny medium soft toy, WAS £19.00 NOW £15.20
*Selfridges, SOPHIE THE GIRAFFE Teething ring, WAS £12.00 NOW £9.60
*The White Company, Hydrocotton Baby Towel, WAS £26.00 NOW £20.80
*The White Company, Millie Mouse Comforter, WAS £16 NOW £12.80

Lareese – Home

I’ve got to that age when I’d actually be happy for my S.O. to gift me a Hoover for Christmas, so you bet I’ve added a Shark to my Black Friday watchlist. Elsewhere, I’m going to be on the hunt for a few new homeware additions including that iconic Instagram rug. H&M always have a great range of candlesticks perfect or the Christmas tables cape and The White Company signature candle is pretty much a Yuletide staple at this point, so I’m adding their Winter wick to my basket immediately. Bring on the savings!

*The White Company, Winter Large Candle, WAS £60.00 NOW £48.00
*La Redoute, Afaw Berber-Style Rug, WAS £95.00 NOW £66.50
*Oliver Bonas, AromaHome Time Out Marble Essential Oil Electric Aroma Diffuser, WAS £45.00 NOW £27.00
*H&M, Metal candlestick, WAS £17.99 NOW £14.39
*The White Company, Ultimate Swag, WAS £60.00 NOW £48.00
*John Lewis, Shark S6003UK Klik n Flip Automatic Steam Mop Cleaner, WAS £149.99 NOW £99.99

Charlotte – Fashion

I know some people think BF is just a big marketing ploy but I LOVE it and always plan ahead to get pieces I’ve wanted for a while for both myself and my family, and this year is no exception! You can probably tell from my previous Weekly Wants picks how much I love ASOS, and their sales always seem to fall just after I’ve placed an order so this time I am ready and waiting. I’m normally a gold jewellery fan (see beaut Daisy Jewellery ring) but this pair of earrings in silver are actually right up my street! & Other Stories is normally a bit spenny for me but when BF is here, nothing is impossible, and I’ve got my eye on these gorgeous Chelsea boots that I think would see me through the colder weather tres well!

*& Other Stories, Chunky Leather Chelsea Boots, WAS £125.00 NOW £100.00
Skinnydip, Checkerboard Tote Bag, WAS £32.00 NOW £22.40
*Daisy Jewellery, Isla Shell Stacking Ring 18Ct Gold Plate, WAS £49.00 NOW £39.20
*ASOS, JDY padded jacket with funnel neck in check print, WAS £38.00 NOW £22.60
*ASOS, Flower Design pack of 2 hoop earrings, WAS £6.00 NOW £4.50

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TEAM ZOELLA NOVEMBER 24, 2021

Friendsmas On A Budget: 8 Cheap ‘n’ Cheerful Dinner Ideas

Featuring a boozy Christmas Eve lasagne (so, this is love) and easy vegan pigs in blankets, these are the frugal but flavoursome recipes and picky dinners guaranteed to complete your Friendsmas.

Friends are priceless, this much we do know. If money grew on Christmas spruces, it would be caviar and Moët all-around alas, we’re not Richie Rich. December is a magical month but it also eats Monzo saving pots for fun, with a ho ho ho glint in its eye. With the average household spending £740 more in December, anything that can help save us all a few bob is Mariah Carey to our ears. 

Featuring a boozy Christmas Eve lasagne (so, this is love) and easy vegan pigs in blankets, these are the frugal but flavoursome recipes and picky dinners guaranteed to complete your Friendsmas, so you can eat, drink and be merry without the financial hangover to go with it. 

1. Festive Fully Loaded Nachos

A one-pot wonder everyone can get stuck into is always a good idea for a Christmas shin-dig and since nachos are universally loved by all, it’s a no brainer.

Whilst everybody knows blue Doritos are the *superior* choice for a nacho feast, crispy scoop style tortilla crisps work best for this fully loaded recipe. Topped with leftover turkey, cranberry sauce and all the trimmings you can find – say no more. 

SERVES 4-6
PREP: 10 MINS COOK: 10 MINS
EASY

  1. Pre-heat over to 200°C, line a baking tray with foil and arrange your tortilla scoops or Doritos of choice.
  2. Combine the shredded cooked turkey and salsa together in a bowl and fill each scoop with the mixture. Top with all the grated cheese. More is more. Anyone who suggests otherwise can get stuffed. 
  3. Bake for around 10 minutes until the chips are golden and the cheese is lovely and melted.
  4. Meanwhile, prepare cranberry sauce and lime juice in a bowl. Top each scoop / tortilla crisp with the mixture and a generous dollop of soured cream. Top with fresh coriander to taste.

Source: All Recipes

2. Christmas Eve Lasagne 

Salad doesn’t wash with us and it sure as hell won’t wash with your hungry guests, which is why salad has no place on this list. You’re welcome. Consider it a Christmas cuss word in this house. 

To level up your lasagne game (only the best for your day ones), look no further than Christmas Eve lasagne – ideal for tucking into between rounds of dirty Santa.  

Psst! Add a generous glug of mulled wine to your ragu to give it some Christmas clout. 

SERVES 6
PREP: 45 MINS COOK: 60 MINS
EASY

Method:

1. Gently fry the pancetta in a nonstick pan for 5-6 mins, until golden and releasing some of its oil.

2. Add the onion and carrot, then cook for another 10-12 mins, until softened.

3. Add the mince to the pan and brown all over, stirring regularly — it will take about 10 mins.

4. Pour in the mulled wine and bubble for 2 mins before stirring in the sage. Add the chopped tomatoes and beef stock, then allow to simmer gently for up to 10 mins until the sauce has reduced.

5. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 180°C/fan 160°C/Gas 4

6. To make the bechamel sauce, melt the butter in a saucepan and stir in the flour.

7. Cook for 2 mins, then take the pan off the heat and gradually stir in the milk, until smooth.

8. Return to the heat, bring up to a simmer and stir continuously for 6-8 mins, until the sauce has thickened.

9. Remove from the heat, then stir in the Cheddar and 75g of the Stilton.

To assemble the lasagne:

10. Lay 4 pasta sheets along the bottom of a 3-litre ovenproof dish.

11. Pour over a quarter of the sauce, followed by a third of the ragu.

12. Repeat, finishing with a layer of ragu.

13. Add most of the parsnip, then the remaining sauce.

14. Sprinkle over the rest of the Stilton and the chestnuts, top with the rest of the parsnip ribbons, then bake for 1 hour, until golden, before serving.

Source: Coop

3. Veggie Bubble & Squeak

This hearty recipe will go down a treat with your best pals this Christmas and will ensure all your leftover veggies go to good use. Any recipe that insists chucking leftovers in a frying pan qualifies as cooking is worthy of a place on this list. Less time faffing around in the kitchen means more time guzzling copious amounts of prosecco with the girls. If you’re wondering if all that coinage we saved on ingredients has gone towards booze, you’d be absolutely right. 

SERVES 4
PREP: 15 MINS COOK: 7 MINS
EASY

1. Preheat the grill.

2. In a bowl, mix your leftover veggies, mash potato, salt and pepper.

3. Add 1 tbsp of butter and 1 tbsp of oil to a frying pan. Melt the butter over a medium-high heat until bubbling.

4. Add half of the bubble and squeak mixture and squash down with a heat-proof spatula.

5. Fry for 5-7 minutes until the edges start to brown. Ruffle the top with a fork to get more crispy bits.

6. Melt the remaining butter and mix with the remaining oil. Brush the top of the bubble and squeak mixture.

7. Place under the grill for 5 minutes until golden brown. Keep an eye on it.

8. Remove from the grill, sprinkle with chopped crispy bacon and season with salt and pepper. For extra party season points, add on a poached egg or two and a sprinkling of fresh parsley.

9. Demolish alongside a goblet of mulled cider.

Source: Kitchen Sanctuary

4. Cheesy Brussels Sprout Bake

You might need to consult the group before committing to this divisive dish or else risk losing friends but if sprouts get the green light, then consider this your go-to party piece. Cheap, filling, festive and easy, it’s the cheesy main every Friendsmas needs. 

SERVES 4
PREP: 10 MINS COOK: 30 MINS
EASY

  1. Preheat oven to 190°C. In a large oven-safe skillet over medium heat, cook bacon for around 8 minutes until crispy. Drain on a paper towel-lined plate, then chop. Discard bacon fat. 
  2. Return skillet to medium heat and melt butter. Add shallots and Brussels sprouts and season with salt and cayenne. Cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 10 minutes. 
  3. Remove from heat and drizzle with double cream, then top with both cheeses and bacon. 
  4. Bake until cheese is bubbly, 12 to 15 minutes. (If your cheese isn’t golden, switch oven to grill and grill 1 minute.)

Source: Delish

5. Sweet Potato Mac & Cheese

Mean mac & cheese with a healthy(ish) sweet potato twist – home cooking doesn’t get better than this. Veggie friends, you won’t need to bring your own Tupperware tonight, not with this winter warmer in your corner. It’s a Christmas miracle. 

SERVES 4-6
PREP: 20 MINS COOK: 35 MINS
EASY

  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C / gas mark 6. Bring a large pan of water to the boil with the lid on.
  2. Peel the sweet potatoes and cut them into 2-3cm pieces. When the water is boiling, add a pinch of salt to taste and follow with the potato pieces. Cook for around 10 minutes until they’re soft.
  3. Take the potato out of the water using a slotted spoon and transfer to a bowl. Lightly mash with a fork. Keep the water to one side to use for the pasta later!
  4. In another saucepan, gently melt the butter and add the flour, whisking to form a roux. Take the pan off the heat, slowly whisk in the milk and, when it’s all combined and smooth, put back on the heat.
  5. Exchange your whisk for a wooden spoon and continue to stir until your gently bubbling sauce has lost any floury taste and has thickened. Add the mustard and the ¼ teaspoon of paprika. Season to taste – remember that you will be adding Cheddar and salty feta later, so go easy for now.
  6. Cook the pennette in the sweet-potato water, starting to check 2 minutes earlier than packet instructions dictate, as you want to make sure it doesn’t lose its bite entirely.
  7. Drain (reserving some of the pasta cooking water first) and then add the pennette to the mashed sweet potato, and fold in to combine; the heat of the pasta will make the mash easier to mix in.
  8. Add the feta cheese to the sweet potato and pasta mixture, crumbling it in so that it is easier to disperse evenly, then fold in the white sauce, adding the 125g/1¼ cups grated Cheddar as you go. Add some of the pasta cooking water, should you feel it needs loosening up at all.
  9. Check for seasoning again, then spoon the brightly sauced macaroni cheese into 4 small ovenproof dishes.
  10. Sprinkle the remaining Cheddar over each one, dust with the remaining ¼ teaspoon of paprika, then shred the sage leaves and scatter over the top.
  11. Put the pots on a baking tray, pop into the oven and bake for 20 minutes (or, if you’re making this in a larger dish, bake for 30–35 minutes), by which time they will be piping hot and bubbling.

Source: Nigella

6. Vegan Pigs in Blankets

Vegan pigs in blankets. That’s it. That’s the tweet. Yes, Ps in Bs count as dinner. It’s Christmas, a tub of Quality Street counts as dinner for crying out loud. 

For those of you who would sooner have picky bits and small plates over one big meal, this is a grazing board with your name on it. Ready in 3 easy steps and ideal for prepping the night before, you’ll have plenty of free time to throw on your PJs, watch Home Alone and whack on a hydrating sheet mask plumped with hyaluronic acid. What else is the mouth opening for if not for threading through chipolatas? 

SERVES 16
PREP: 15 MINS COOK: 30 MINS
EASY

1. Use the oil to coat a large baking tray. Unroll the puff pastry on a work surface so it’s flat, then cut it into 16 x 10cm-long strips.

2. Wind a strip of pastry around each sausage, so it looks like a corkscrew. Transfer to the prepared tray and chill for 15 mins. Will keep in the fridge overnight, or the freezer for up to two weeks.

3. Heat the oven to 220°C/200°C fan/gas 7. To make the glaze, combine the soy milk, oil, nutmeg, garlic, a pinch of salt and plenty of black pepper in a bowl. Brush the glaze over the pastry spirals using a pastry brush, then sprinkle with the sage. Bake for 25-30 mins, or until the pastry is puffed up and golden, and the sausages are cooked through.

Source: BBC Good Food

7. Drunken Noodles (Pad Kee Mao) 

If your muckers can’t handle the heat, fear not, you can customise these drunken noodles to suit their spice tolerance. An easy dish to toss together in 10 minutes flat, you’ll be in and out of the kitchen and back to the action quicker than you can say Cards Against Humanity. 

SERVES 4
PREP: 10 MINS COOK: 10 MINS
EASY

1. Cook noodles according to package instructions.

2. Mix sauce in a small bowl and set aside.

3. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a wok or large skillet over high heat. Add shallots and carrot and cook for 2 minutes. Add another tablespoon of oil to the pan. Add chicken and season with pepper. Add garlic and ginger and cook for 10 seconds. Add bell pepper, courgette, tomato and the whites of the chopped spring onion and cook for 2 minutes.

4. Add noodles to the pan and pour the sauce over the noodles. Toss and cook for a few minutes until warmed through. Remove from heat and stir in chopped basil.

5 .Serve immediately, garnished with remaining spring onion and extra chili sauce, sriracha, or crushed red pepper, for added spice.

Source: Tastes better from scratch

8. Courgette Ricotta Galette 

For the ultimate feed-a-crowd recipe give this savoury pie a whirl. You can easily swap out the courgette for something different. Try kale and leek or turkey, cranberry and brie – thanksgiving leftovers style. 

SERVES 4-6
PREP: 20 MINS COOK: 40 MINS
MEDIUM

  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the pie crust into a 10-inch circle. Transfer it to the prepared baking sheet.
  3. In a medium bowl, whisk the ricotta with 1 egg and the dill, garlic and ¾ teaspoon pepper in a medium bowl. Spread the mixture evenly over the piecrust, leaving about 1 inch of the perimeter uncovered.
  4. In another medium bowl, toss the courgette with the olive oil, salt and remaining pepper. Arrange the courgette slices evenly over the ricotta. Fold the edge of the dough up and toward the centre, partially covering the filling.
  5. In a small bowl, whisk the remaining egg with 1 tablespoon of water. Lightly brush the egg wash around the edge of the crust and sprinkle evenly with the Parmesan.
  6. Bake until the crust is very golden brown, 35 to 40 minutes. Let cool 15 minutes before slicing and serving.

Source: Pure Wow

TEAM ZOELLA NOVEMBER 23, 2021

Shop The Very Best Of Black Friday!

Featuring the iconic Foreo Luna, hair tool must-haves from Ghd, and winter complexion saviours from Kiehls, we’ve got your party season essentials covered to celebrate Christmas 2021 looking and feeling your best.

This article includes a paid partnership with Skinnydip

Black Friday, aka a bargain hunters dream, might not roll around until the 26th November, but the first of this year’s discounts are dropping like it’s hot, and getting in there early to ensure your Christmas shopping and ‘to me, from me’ items are added to basket ASAP is certainly an idea Martin Lewis would get behind…

Featuring the iconic Foreo Luna, hair tool must-haves from Ghd, and winter complexion saviours from Kiehls, we’ve got your party season essentials covered to celebrate Christmas 2021 looking and feeling your best. And because sometimes giving is as good as receiving, wrap up Christmas shopping for dad with the Always Pan, gifts mum will be posting a Facebook status about immediately from Nespresso, and accessories your bestie will squeal about courtesy of Skinnydip- suddenly December feels more peaceful already! 

Whilst we don’t have the scoop on the exact product promotions hitting our inboxes this week, 2020 gave a pretty clear indication that the Black Friday deals are going to keep getting bigger and better. Here’s hoping!

Wish lists at the ready…

This article includes a paid partnership with Skinnydip

TEAM ZOELLA NOVEMBER 23, 2021

13 Questions with Emma Jones

Emma is an editor at Penguin Random House and the editor of The Magpie Society Duology written by Zoe Sugg and Amy McCulloch. Ahead of the book's launch Emma is giving us the goss on what it was like to work on Two For Joy!

First off, how has your 2021 been?

It’s been a mixed bag! I was supposed to go to Greece with some pals, and that isn’t going to happen now until 2023. But on the plus side, there have been a bunch of rescheduled weddings which have been joyful – and I’ve been able to see so much more of my family this year than last. It’s looking like we might even get to spend Christmas together, my favourite time of year!

Can you tell us about your background and journey to becoming a book editor?

I’m a bit of a publishing cliché – I’ve always loved reading and I studied English at uni. But after that, I moved to London and worked for a couple of years in an independent children’s bookshop which I really loved, before landing a role as an editorial assistant in the Children’s and YA team at Penguin in 2015.

For those that don’t know, what does a book editor actually do?

It’s a lot more than grammar and spelling, which is what surprised me most when I entered publishing for the first time. I’m a senior commissioning editor now, which means my main job is bringing new books and authors to our Puffin and Penguin lists. I spend a lot of time considering manuscripts and book proposals for publication – I work on fiction and non-fiction, and on all age groups from young illustrated books for 7-year-olds to thrilling young adult novels like The Magpie Society.

After acquiring the book (signing a contract with the author/s), comes a few months of editorial collaboration, before working closely with Marketing, PR, production and sales to ensure the book is launched into the world with a splash. A lot of my job is about my authors and their literary agents – having creative calls and sending editorial notes, sharing publishing updates and campaign plans, providing sales numbers etc.

What is the process like for editing a book?

It completely varies from book to book! For fiction, what usually starts the process is an initial email, meeting or call to discuss some very ‘big picture’ points and following up with an editorial letter addressing what we call the ‘structural edit’. This means plot, structure, characters, motivations, scenes or characters that might need to be cut and places that might need additional scenes for context.

After the structural editing stage comes line editing, which is where we go through the book line by line, checking that the text feels as impactful as possible – funny, pacy, scary or emotional in all the right places. There might be a few rounds of line edits and then, when myself and the author/s are happy with how the manuscript is looking, we pass it to a copy-editor whose job is to check for clarity, inconsistencies and general sense. Proofreading comes after that – that’s the final spelling and grammar and typo check.

What was it like editing Two For Joy with Zoe and Amy?

I really love YA books – particularly thrillers – and Zoe and Amy are both very talented at writing for young adults, so publishing the Magpie Society duology has been a real editorial highlight for me. For both books, the editorial process has been a combination of creative Zoom calls with Zoe and Amy, editorial letters outlining structural changes, and line edits made directly onto the manuscript, with the authors making changes and cuts, writing new scenes and fleshing out characters, and sending them back to me for review.

It’s SO much fun editing these thrillers because reading the first drafts was like reading any great murder mystery for the first time – I was compulsively turning pages, desperate to find out what happened next. Every draft after that was just more atmospheric, more compulsive, with higher stakes, and funnier and more emotional moments. Our edits were a lot about maintaining the mystery throughout, and at the same time making sure the reader has enough easter eggs, clues and red herrings to keep things interesting and make for a satisfying overall conclusion. Zoe writes Ivy’s character and Amy writes Audrey’s, so I loved how they worked together as co-authors and created such a seamless narrative, even while they had to compare notes over WhatsApp during lockdown!

Do you think readers will be happy to see how the Magpie Society ends?

When I read the ending of Two for Joy I genuinely gasped out loud – it’s brilliantly twisty and I think readers are going to absolutely love it. There are layers upon layers of mysteries in this duology and the conclusion is both terrifying and satisfying. I can’t wait for people to get their hands on the book so I can talk to everyone about it without spoilers!

What would your advice be to anyone looking to enter a career in editing?

It’s a really rewarding, creative job that’s a lot about passion – for stories, and for making them the best they can be. If you’re looking to join a particular publisher or imprint, make sure you really know your area of the market, whether it’s crime & thriller, non-fiction memoir, children’s books, popular science – there are so many areas you can go into depending on your personal taste. Publishers will always want to know you’re really invested in the kind of books they publish.

What have some of your favourite book releases been this year?

I’ve read some truly amazing new books this year, including Release the Beast by Bimini Bon Boulash which is so powerful and proud and eye-opening (and funny!). I also loved The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex for a really intriguing mystery, and on the YA side, I inhaled Empress & Aniya by Candice Carty-Williams, a heartfelt novella about two best friends. Also, I have to mention one of my own YA releases this year – The Upper World, an incredible time-travelling thriller soon to be a major movie starring Daniel Kaluuya! This has been a bumper year for amazing books.

What else have you edited that is launching for Christmas?

I edit books for a variety of ages, so alongside Two for Joy I’ve also had a couple of autumn releases for slightly younger readers – I work with non-fiction author Adam Kay and his new book Kay’s Marvellous Medicine is a hilarious history of medicine throughout the ages; I have also just published a beautiful debut novel by middle-grade author Helenka Stachera called The Ice Whisperers, the story of two sisters born forty thousand years apart. I also want to mention a book that was published earlier this year, but is the perfect novel for curling up with on cold winter nights (and a great read for Magpie Society fans): Wicked Little Deeds by Kat Ellis, a real page-turner of a small-town thriller full of urban legends, creepy shadows, a bad-boy romance and a killer on the loose…

What does your perfect weekend look like?

A combination of long walks, movie nights and delicious food. Is any Sunday complete without a roast?

What do you always carry with you?

It’s cheating a bit, but I always have on me my ‘everything bag’. It’s a small glittery bag which has all the essentials in it: plasters, hand sanitiser, eye drops, painkillers, deodorant, a pen, a spare charger . . . It’s saved me on multiple occasions!

What would your last ever meal be?

My partner makes the most amazing tomato and baby aubergine curry, which I always crave when I want something comforting, so I think it would have to be that. Plus I have a gigantic sweet tooth, so it would have to be followed by some kind of chocolate pudding cookie cake.

What is one positive piece of advice you could give to our audience?

Never lose sight of the things that make you passionate – life is so much more than the 9-5. For me, I really have to remind myself to read for pleasure outside of my job, too.

TEAM ZOELLA NOVEMBER 22, 2021

What It’s Really Like To Be Kris Kringle & Buddy The Elf IRL

From how they stay in character all day when they’re not feeling their best to beard management, speaking Elfish and weird gift requests, here’s what it’s really like to play Kris Kringle and Buddy the Elf IRL - perks of the job, professional challenges ‘n’ all.

Playing Santa is a tough job but someone’s gotta do it. 

Smiling all day until your face hurts, overzealous children tugging your beard and pushy parents desperate to get the shot, there’s so much more to the role than eating mince pies, wearing a red suit and bellowing ho ho ho every now and again for the crowds. Behind every photo op is a long-suffering adult desperate for a mince pie, a cold can of Coke and a pay rise (probably). 

And the Elves don’t get off lightly either – let’s just say Will Ferrell sits on a throne of lies. 

The madness of the holiday season, the queues, the heat and the stroppy non-believers aside, there’s also the tender heart-warming moments that make dressing up as these legendary Christmas personalities totally worthwhile. 

From how they stay in character all day when they’re not feeling their best to beard management, speaking Elfish and weird gift requests, here’s what it’s really like to play Kris Kringle and Buddy the Elf in real life – perks of the job, professional challenges ‘n’ all.

Sammy Brooks

Sammy Brooks, 41, from Cambridge, has been a professional actor and entertainer for the last 25 years, performing in tribute shows across the UK. From grottos, light switch on events, home visits, video calls, office parties, voiceovers, school visits, musicals, you name it, this Santa Claus has been there, done that, got the red suit. Having always loved dressing up as a kid, putting on plays for his family and making grottos from the airing cupboard (who’s cutting onions in here?!), Sammy was quite frankly born to take on the role of good Saint Nick…

Being Santa for a living is an intriguing career. How did you get into this job? 

My mum, being a teacher at the time, got me a Santa suit that the school was throwing out, I was over the moon, I had my first “real” Santa suit! In my early teens I used to dress up to raise money for children in need and when I was 14 the local care home was having a charity Christmas fun day, so I went along in my Santa suit, the residents loved it, and so did I, that is when I got the bug, and I knew that I wanted to be Santa. I had been Santa on and off for a while and was now working as a professional actor, and when I got married, I purchased my first semi-professional Santa suit for a friend to wear at my Christmas themed wedding, but it wasn’t until I had children until I really became Santa, being asked by my wife to appear at the local toddler group Christmas party as Santa was my big comeback and it’s been crazy ever since.

What does a typical day as Santa look like? We’re guessing it’s not your average 9-5 gig…

Well, not one job is the same! I spend most of my days in my Santa studio, a room decked out to look like the north pole, all year round. I spend most of my time filming videos for clients, be it Santa advertising a product or a simple video for a child, then I head home and sit down to edit all the footage, it’s only when November comes around when I do any live Santa work. I could be appearing at a pub for say 60 people or at a light switch on for 20,000, it changes so much, lots of traveling is involved, mainly trains for me and I’m always in a hotel somewhere. Come mid-December I leave home to head out on tour in my “Santamime” basically a Santa show that tours the UK, the only thing I dislike about doing this is missing my family, I refuse to work after 2pm on Christmas eve because I have young children and still want to share the magic of Christmas with them so hurry home as fast as I can. 

What do you do for work when you’re not busy being a Christmas icon?

My Christmas work starts normally around the end of august, but when I’m not jingling my bells, I am an actor, singer, and children’s entertainer. I have toured the UK in tribute shows appearing as different people, it’s a job that I absolutely love and I’m very lucky to be able to do it.

On a scale of 1 – 10, how intense is it playing such a legendary character? You have big boots to fill! 

That’s a tricky question! Most of the time I think maybe a 3, but this is because I have training in acting and I have been doing it so long I can just slip into the part, what can be a bit more troublesome is having to glue a beard to your face for up to 5 hours a day, this can be hot and very uncomfortable, if you want to eat, you can forget it! I have to wait until all my Santa work is finished for the day and I’m back to me. 

Do you have to audition or attend Santa school? Talk us through the prep involved… 

I have never once auditioned to be Santa. I’m lucky that I have a good camera and showreel, at this time I’m lucky that people normally contact me for work. I’ve never attended a Santa school, but I do run one, “The Santa’s Workshop” is the UK’s only two-day Santa convention, and it’s my baby, I’m very proud of it. Santas learn all sorts from acting, makeup, costume, and we have stalls of Santa products you can buy, even Santa’s cookie aftershave, yes that’s a thing. 

Other than a naturally jolly disposition, what makes for a convincing Santa?

I think there are a few things that make for a convincing Santa, starting with the look, a good beard is a must, real! Great, but I prefer the “designer beards”. These are beards made from human hair or Yak hair, the same beards that you would see in a film or on stage, they can look so magical. A fantastic suit is a plus, I’m lucky to have one of the best Santa costume designers in the UK, Heidi Jane Tibbles, she also makes costumes for the West End and entertainment industry, but to me the most important thing is playing the part of Santa. I think the voice and mannerisms are so important. 

How do people you know react when you tell them what you do? 

Well for me, the people I meet are normally in the entertainment industry so they kind of get it, but my wife on the other hand finds it amusing when someone asks her what her husband does for a living. “Oh, he’s Santa” they often think of a classic Santa that you may see in a garden centre, so she then has to show them a video, that’s when they always reply with, “Oh! He is actually Santa!” They are pretty much always surprised when they actually meet me because I look nothing like my Santa in real life.

Does the job pay well? 

I’m at the stage in my Santa life when the pay is not too bad, But starting out, it can be a lot of work for not a massive payout, the standard fee for a Santa starting out in a grotto is between £12-£25 per hour.

What’s been the happiest reaction you’ve had from a kid?

There are so many, a lot I forget because I may see lots of kids in a day. My favourite reactions are actually from the grownups, if you can convince a grown-up that you are Santa you have cracked it! I love taking them back to being a kid again, and you can see it in their eyes, it’s a lovely moment.

What’s the most common present request you get?

It’s always the latest thing, Nintendo Switch was huge, lots of kids asked for one of those, including my own. I never promise a present, ever. We don’t know the situation and if they can afford a Nintendo, so I will always say, “I’ll see what I can do”

Have you had any funny/weird requests for gifts?

This year I have already had a request for a yellow truck with a rainbow on the side, and I sometimes have kids ask for say a pen, and I’ll reply with, anything else? And they say, nope, just a pen! Sometimes you get children asking for pets, this is a no, no, Santa can’t make living things.

We tend to assume it’s the children that might cause some challenging situations but how are the parents?!

I always try to perform for the parents as well as the children, I’m quite a cheeky Santa and do like a bit of a joke around, if you can entertain the parents, you know that they will recommend you to others for bookings. Once in a grotto I received a letter that was meant to be from a child but was clearly written by the mum, it was quite a shocking read, saying that the child had been very naughty and didn’t deserve anything for Christmas, this was an instant cause for concern, we  stayed and played with the child while the letter was sent to the management, I think the police were even involved in that case.  

What’s the most rewarding thing about your job? 

Just the pure joy on children’s faces! And I love when you get a shy child and they just open up to you, it’s the most magical reaction. Santa is all about being happy, and the job can make you very happy.

The question on everyone’s lips is: have you ever had a child punch your beard off? 

Nope, never ever! I’ve had a child tug it, but I say go ahead give it a tug, the glue we use is very strong and it has to come off a certain way, it won’t come off if pulled downwards. 

Have you ever had a child catch you off-duty in your suit, say…downing a bottle of Budweiser?

No never, when I’m in my suit I’m Santa, I only do things that Santa would do. 

How do you deal with cheeky kids or kids who question your authenticity?

You will get kids questioning you, it just comes with the job, no matter how good you are, or how amazing you look. I have several props on my person that can be used as “convincers”. I have designed very magical north pole coins, credit cards, sleigh license, all these things help but normally just asking what they want for Christmas can soon change their mind.

Have you ever been asked to change your appearance for your role or does the costume do most of the work? 

No, I’ve never been asked, I’m very proud of my Santa look.

What does a professional Santa’s CV look like – what experience do you need under your belt to land a role like that? 

There are so many different jobs for Santa – grottos, walkabout, light switch on events, home visits, video calls, office parties, voice overs, school visits, large stage show musicals, I am very lucky to have done all of these types of work. 

Smiling on demand and hanging out with kids all day is some people’s worst nightmare. How do you have the energy and stamina to stay in character all day?

I think this does get easier the more you do it, but what you have to remember is that you see a lot of children but not all at the same time, so to me every child is a new audience, so every child is a fresh performance. Also knowing that I can have a nice cold can of Coke when I get home helps.

Haha, Coca Cola, very on-brand even when you’re off-duty! What about if you’re having a bad day, how do you separate your reality from the role? 

This is easy, and there is just one thing needed for it, even if I have had a bad morning or a terrible time travelling to the event, all I need to do is put my beard on. As soon as that goes on, I’m Santa! It’s the oddest feeling but works every time.

By the time it gets to Christmas are you sick of mince pies and all things Christmas or does it just add to the magic. What’s your relationship like with the holiday season as a result of your job?

I love Christmas! And this has grown hugely since having children of my own. This sounds like I’m crazy but on Christmas Eve I still get excited about Santa coming, even though I know, I still picture him in his sleigh flying across the sky, and I hope I always will!

Biggest misconception or preconceived idea you had about the role?

I honestly don’t think I have any, I think this is because I have always done it, even way back in my airing cupboard days, being Santa is everything I imagined it to be.

What valuable lesson has playing Santa taught you?

That keeping the magic of Christmas alive in a child is so important, it’s made me a fantastic listener and that is so important for children.

How will you be kicking back for Christmas once you’ve hung up your hat (and your beard) for another season?

With a whole load of mince pies, a glass of Sherry and watching Christmas specials with my wife Heather, my two boys Jasper and Reuben and our dog Ringo. Bliss, Merry Christmas!

If you’d like to find out more about Santa / Sammy or book him for an event, check out his website here!

Guy Pidsley

For Guy Pidsley, being Father Christmas isn’t simply a job for a few months of the year, it’s fundamentally who he is. After following in his own father’s festive footsteps and answering to Santa for more than 20 years, spreading holiday cheer is in his bones and continuing the magic of this legendary story is his greatest honour. Non-believers, prepare to question everything…

Being Santa for a living is an intriguing career. How did you get into this job? 

If you are Father Christmas, you don’t get the job, it is your job, well not even really a job, it is just what you do, it has to be done with love, care and belief, the belief is that you ARE father Christmas, and I am.

What does a typical day as Santa look like? We’re guessing it’s not your average 9-5 gig…

A typical day is just being Father Christmas for the time that those who have asked you to be Santa for them is your just being there and  greeting and talking to the children that come to you, wanting to talk with you, and letting you know what they hope for at Xmas

Instead of a sleigh, I have a trailer that I carry all sorts of goods, for all sorts of people around the country!

On a scale of 1 – 10, how intense is it playing such a legendary character? You have big boots to fill! 

It’s not that intense because I am Father Christmas – it’s enjoyable rather than intense.

Do you have to audition/attend Santa school? Talk us through the prep involved… 

Because I am Father Christmas, and love being the purveyor of all happiness, after all the years I have done there’s no audition process. I’d be quite happy to run a Santa school to help the number of Santa’s available. 

Other than a naturally jolly disposition, what makes for a convincing Santa?

Being convincing is just being you, having a head of hair and a beard that requires no falsies, also if you ARE Santa what convincing does anyone need! 

How do people you know react when you tell them what you do? 

I’m known as Santa all year round locally, even by all the school children as you get recognized by other school children in the supermarket as they shop with mum. 

Does the job pay well?  

More than the national average!

Have you had any funny/weird requests for gifts?

Nothing really weird, but surprises can suddenly present themselves, a lovely lady sits on my knee and her fiancé kneels before me and when she opens the present, he asks her to marry him…good result! Hilarious and weird requests are always fun – when children ask for some things with their parent present, the hilarious part is the parents reaction!

The most heart-warming is when the present they want is for Mum and Dad to be happy together. Social awareness in young children is awesome. 

We tend to assume it’s the children that might cause some challenging situations but how are the parents?!

Parents and grandparents present no problem, they just want the children to get to the point that when we have finished, they are bubbling with excitement and are laughing, that’s what it’s all about.

What’s the most rewarding thing about your job? 

It’s not a job, it’s years that have developed in the joy of life, the continuation of the keeping alive a wonderfully simple legend, belief of a myth, that results in care and gift.

Yup, that’s wonderful, being a real Santa with white hair, big beard, an answer to the question are you a real santa, the reply is well give my beard a tug….sold

The question on everyone’s lips is: have you ever had a child punch your beard off? 

I am so lucky that I do not need any hair/beard etc., in addition, I have beautiful full-length robes, I’m 6ft 2, if any difficulty one can for small children appear overbearing, you just have to adapt quickly on those occasions.

Have you ever had a child catch you off-duty in your suit, say…downing a bottle of Budweiser?

Yes, often when I go down the pub locally, children there say, “Hello Santa”, always keep a few chocolate coins in your pocket when going for a pint. 

How do you deal with cheeky kids or kids who question your authenticity?

Authenticity is not a problem – “believe or don’t believe, it’s up to you, I hope you have some lovely presents this Christmas, I think I know what you’d like, tell me.” Naughty kids are dealt with by kindness and listening, they always come round.

Have you ever been asked to change your appearance for your role or does the costume do most of the work? 

I am Father Christmas so no appearance, or costume changes are required.

What does a professional Santa’s CV look like – what experience do you need under your belt to land a role like that? 

No CV required for the real original!

Smiling on demand and hanging out with kids all day is some people’s worst nightmare. How do you have the energy and stamina to stay in character all day?

What a funny question, if you ARE Father Christmas, the smile, happy energy and stamina  are all part of the enjoyment of being Father Christmas.

What about if you’re having a bad day, how do you separate your reality from the role? 

Bad days don’t exist when you’re Santa. 

By the time it gets to Christmas are you sick of mince pies and all things Christmas or does it just add to the magic. What’s your relationship like with the holiday season as a result of your job?

You cannot be serious asking Father Christmas about magic and mince pies – what a wonderful time of the year! My Father did Santa for years, it was a real follow on, I still have his FC suit. He had the same wonderful attitude to giving. I am pleased to follow his lovely joy of life! 

Biggest misconception or preconceived idea you had about the role?

These are all held by those who are NOT Father Christmas, for my part, those imposters shall always be put aside. 

What valuable lesson has playing Santa taught you?

Where do you start? Love, care, patience, understanding, the ability to listen, to be true to yourself. There are times when you have to step on the border of being who you are and what the expectations of those that you identify with wish to believe. Not a real problem if you are true to yourself. By the way I know what you want for Christmas – just let me know the colour! 

How will you be kicking back for Christmas once you’ve hung up your hat (and your beard) for another season?

Once Christmas is done we should continue to care for each other. The spirit of giving is not just limited to Christmas and gifts. How about giving your time?

Father Christmas enjoys a good Christmas Dinner once he has been all around the world, the reindeer need their hay and a little something special. Whatever you do, be kind to one another. 

You can find this Father Christmas at Elveden Farm for 4 weekends. 

Robert McCaffrey

Robert McCaffrey, 40, played Tricky Dicky, an elf in the Arctic Circle in Finland. Now a specialist Fashion & Art Historian and Copywriter who occasionally still gets to flex his acting muscles by speaking at conferences and exhibitions, he takes a fond look back at his weird and wonderful Elfish years. 

How did you get into the job? 

I applied through the actor’s newspaper The Stage, back then I was auditioning for everything and anything that came up so I actually can’t remember the audition process. I do remember thinking that it was weird that there wasn’t a script for the ‘show’ – but more on that later.

Did you have a professional Elf name?

I was Tricky Dicky – a mischievous elf who was always pulling faces and making farting sounds. Much of this characterisation was improvised with me drawing on my infantile humour. 

On a scale of 1 – 10, how intense was it playing such a legendary character? There’s a lot of pressure to do a good job, we’d imagine? 

I have always been a high energy person, so it was intense, but that seemed appropriate. If there’s an audience (even now when I do public speaking) I put a lot of pressure on myself to deliver. Tricky Dicky was no different. I wanted to make people smile and laugh. We were part of a whole squad of different elves and we all wanted to create the best experiences for all the guests.

What did a typical day as a pro Elf look like? We’re guessing it wasn’t your average 9-5 gig?

Well, here’s the first weird thing. When we arrived in Finland it was winter (unsurprisingly). Firstly this meant that the sun barely came over the horizon and secondly it meant we were performing for the day trippers who wanted to see Santa in the Arctic circle. These day-trippers were sporadic so sometimes we didn’t work for days at a time and then we would be busy day after day. Time began to lose any meaning because it always felt like night and our schedules were so muddled up.

In fact, on one of my days off I attempted to go skiing on my own (I don’t ski) and ended up nearly killing myself. Due to tiredness and feeling a little confused I accidentally got on the ski lift for a black slope. I was totally on my own and had to ski (fall about 20 times) the entire way down the mountain. I had to be treated for ice burns. After that – I kept my wanderings more sedate and local, and mainly slept on the days we weren’t working.

But on the days we worked – we would all assemble at a big rented house in the forest near our separate accommodations and get into makeup. I was also experienced applying makeup so I would assist getting everyone ready and then do my own rosy cheeks and freckles. We would take a few hours to get fully made up and into costume while we ate a traditional Finnish breakfast. Then we would pile into a minivan and drive to the clearing in the forest where Santa’s grotto, the traditional Sammi tents, reindeers, sleigh rides and more were all set up. Shortly after we arrived, the coaches would begin to park up and excited children and parents would begin to walk our way. We would run excitedly to greet them and stay in character for about 4-6 hours until the last coaches left with children waving out the windows.

Then we’d go home, get changed and sit down to a feast prepared by our hosts before walking through the thick snow into the little town of Rovaniemi to go drinking and dancing. 

What do you do for work when you’re not busy being a Christmas icon? (feel free to skip as largely for those still in the role)

Fifteen years later I am an art & fashion historian and copywriter. I gave up acting shortly after my adventures in Finland because I was struggling to afford to pay my bills. And let’s be honest – you wanna go out on a high, surely there’s no greater role than playing one of Santa’s elves?

Did you have to audition? Talk us through the prep involved…

I did a lot of auditions back in the day and I would often over-prepare. Typically, I would have a suitable monologue memorised and I would have practiced my character’s movement and postures. I can’t remember the Tricky Dicky audition but I think they just wanted someone with the right cheeky face. So I probably didn’t actually have to deliver a monologue, I probably just got the job cause I look a bit naughty.

Other than a naturally jolly disposition, what makes for a convincing Elf?

The ability to talk in a totally made up language. In fact, this ability to communicate with other elves, from all over Europe in a made up language, actually started to make sense after a few weeks. We developed certain made up words that could convey just enough meaning – things like ‘I’m going to the loo, meet you here’ and ‘let’s go and talk to that family over there’. Also the ability to be daft, make a fool of yourself and not feel embarrassed. 

How did people you know react when you tell them what you do for work? 

I have to dig out pictures to prove it. I am now a seemingly serious academic person who writes for big fashion designers and get my research published in Vogue. So when I say I was once a Christmas elf they demand evidence.

What’s been the happiest reaction you’ve had from a kid?

A family wanted to go on the sleigh ride that accompanied the Santa visit but their youngest son was nervous. In the end he agreed to go on the sleigh ride only if I went with the whole family. I hadn’t experienced the sleigh ride yet, as the elves typically hung out near the grotto. I had an amazing time and me and the little boy were like best friends. After that he insisted I join them everywhere they went, to see the huskies, to have hot chocolate in the tent and ride the ski mobile. The whole time I wasn’t allowed to speak English (cause I was an Elf) but I could understand everything the family were saying. Apparently the little boy was autistic and they had never seen him bond so quickly with anyone and they hadn’t expected him to enjoy the day trip. I don’t think they realised that I was actually a fellow Brit and understood every word. It was a lovely experience and knowing what a difference I had made, I could have cried! 

What about the weirdest reaction…

There was one Finnish girl who simply wouldn’t leave at the end of the day and wrapped herself around my leg, holding up the coaches. She was a bit intense and kept biting me if I tried to shake her off. I think it took about half an hour until I was free.

We tend to assume it’s the children that might cause some challenging situations but how are the parents?!

A really mixed bag. Parents with disabled children were very emotional. Sometimes the child they had brought had a terminal illness and this was expected to be their final Christmas. This was difficult because we had to stay in character, upbeat and only speak Elfish which was tough because sometimes you just wanted to hug them and reassure them. Being a daft playful elf when someone is going through such grief is difficult, but you have a job to do and that is to make this Christmas experience a positive one.

Some other parents were just super rich, arrogant and complained about having to queue five minutes to see Santa. I would usually focus on their kids and ignore them.

Most of the time the parents were just as excited as the kids, it was hard not to be in such a magical place.

What’s the most rewarding thing about being an Elf?

Seeing the northern lights, bringing smiles to faces and experiencing another world. I made some great friends in the process and learned about the Sammi people and Finnish culture. 

Did the job pay well? (feel free no to answer this if you’re not comfortable disclosing)

Ninety percent of acting jobs have terrible pay. This was no different. I came back on Christmas day and barely had enough money to pay for a taxi back to my London flat. I was so broke I had to go and get a real job.

How did you deal with naughty kids / kids who question your authenticity?

Tease them, tease them and tease them some more. The parents would usually play along and they would just get frustrated. It was always the older brother trying to ruin it for his younger siblings and act cool. But we always won them over. I mean you can’t argue with someone speaking a nonsense language. Most of the kids were good humoured and well behaved though – there’s something magical about standing in the perpetual twilight snow with the northern lights flickering above you. It  makes anything seem possible, even Santa and his elves.

What does a professional Elf’s CV look like – how did you land a role like that?

I had been acting since I was eight years old in Blackpool theatre and then doing the festivals. I’d briefly started my own production company with fellow actors, putting on self penned plays across the North West to get more acting credits. After leaving Blackpool I worked in TIE (Theatre in Education) out of a company in Scotland for about four years. I was essentially touring around small theatres and venues performing plays tailor made for kids. They included Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella and the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Once in London I did a lot of Extra work, worked for Garsington Opera and the London Dungeon before I got the Elf job.

Smiling on demand and hanging out with kids all day is some people’s worst nightmare. How did you have the energy and stamina to stay in character all day?

I am a big kid – even now at 40 years old I’m just the same, except I complain about my back more. I think you get a lot of energy from being around kids and while you do have to pace yourself, you always find the energy. The most exhausting thing wasn’t the running around or playing but the thick winter wear we had to wear under our costumes. At the end of the day we were all drenched! Eww!

If you were having a bad day, how did you separate your reality from the role?

Even a low rent actor like me had the capacity to immerse myself into a character enough to erase whatever else was going on. When I was 17 years old I was in the middle of a theatre production when my mum had a stroke and died. I was on stage that same night because when you inhabit a character you shed your own body, mind, worries, issues and totally become someone else. So my bad days, my hangovers, my tiredness just melted away when I became Tricky Dicky.

Did playing an Elf ruin Christmas for you, or did it just add to the magic of the season. What’s your relationship like with the holiday season now, as a result of your job?

Before then I had always worked at Christmas, in bars, in restaurants etc. But after that I found a partner and settled in London and began to realise that Christmas really is a time for family. I started my own little family, just me, Guillaume and my dog Jacqui and now we go all out each Christmas. I think realising the magic of Christmas and embracing the way I do now started when I was in Finland.

Biggest misconception or preconceived idea you had about the role?

Well – I thought there was actually a ‘Christmas Show’ I thought I’d be learning lines, dance routines etc. No… we just dressed up and wandered around talking to visitors (in nonsense Elfish). I guess we were a bit like Mickey and Minnie mouse at Disneyland except we didn’t need someone to guide us. Bafta award winning acting, it was not.

Also – despite being from the North of England, I actually had never experienced such extreme cold and didn’t know what that was going to be like. I actually threw up shortly after getting off the plane. I had never been so cold in all my life and thought I was actually dying.

What valuable lesson has being a professional Elf taught you?

That you can communicate with children through play. I have French nephews and nieces who adore me even though they barely speak English and my French is dreadful. If you just throw yourself in and start making noises, before you know it you’re communicating.

How will you be kicking back for Christmas this year now that you’re no longer an Elf?

This year I will be piling into the car with my fiancé and dog for an escape to the French countryside. We will likely have a naff plastic tree and no turkey – but we’ll all be together and that’s the main thing.

Megan Robertson

Not only did Megan pass her Elf interview with flying colours, but she also helped to create the Elf manual for future staff after working as Mistletoe for 4 years at a mall in Canada. Megan has hung up her Elf winklepickers now but it was the perfect position whilst she was studying at University!

How did you get into this job?

 I had just begun a graduate program in documentary production with hopes of creating a doc about my uncle who was fighting Huntington’s Disease. I was about to start filming when my school announced the program was ending and funding was cut. The camera equipment the school had was broken and I needed a camera soon, as my uncle’s health was declining at a steady pace. At this time I was working as a janitor at a high school to try to afford the new camera, but it wasn’t enough funds to cover any kind of camera. I then saw a posting at the local mall for a Christmas Elf. The job paid more than any other job I could find at the time and the rest is history. Being the elf allowed me to buy the camera and create my film which is now a lasting memory of my uncle. 

Do you have an Elf name?

It is mandatory for all elves to have a special name, it adds to the magic. I wanted to be Jovie but my boss was not a fan so I became Mistletoe after seeing a display window with Mistletoe hanging.  

On a scale of 1 – 10, how intense is it playing such a legendary character? There’s a lot of pressure to do a good job, we’d imagine?

9 it is an intense gig, the fate of Christmas magic is in your hands and it is your job to ensure each individual who comes to see you leaves feeling better than when they arrived.  

What does a typical day as a pro Elf look like. We’re guessing it’s not your average 9-5 gig?

It’s definitely different than my 9-5 now. You would arrive and get ready, you would then greet Santa and parade down to the Village. The day would consist of entertaining the guests, making sure Santa was taken care of and helping young ones smile. Children from 18months to 2 years are usually scared of Santa so this was usually when you would have to work with the photographer to get a decent picture. 

What do you do for work when you’re not busy being a Christmas icon?

I have since retired and now work in Project Management.  

Do you have to audition? Talk us through the prep involved…

 You are invited to an interview in which they ask you a number of Christmas related questions- this process is to get a feel for your personality. During my second year I was invited to help with the interviewing and helped create the Elf Training Manual for our team. 

Other than a naturally jolly disposition, what makes for a convincing Elf?

Knowing your story and sticking with it. Kids will test you. “Show me your ears. Where are the reindeer? Why are you taller than me? I thought elves were short…”. Having answers for these questions is key to the character. In response- my ears are quite cold so I wear this hat to keep them warm, reindeer are nervous around people and are in a shed napping, elves come in all sizes, I just ate my vegetables.  

How do people you know react when you tell them what you do for work?

I definitely was teased about it- my family absolutely loved the fact that I was an Elf. My dad would answer the phone with “How’s our favourite elf?”. At first, it was embarrassing, but then I owned the embarrassment and laughed along with everyone. 

What’s been the happiest reaction you’ve had from a kid?

I had a little girl come in twice before trying to see Santa, but due to long lines, she had to leave both times as she had dance competitions. On the third time, there was another line, and the little girl broke down in tears. I asked her and her mom if she could be ready to see Santa in 5 minutes and I would fit them in. I explained to the couple next in line that we had a quick reshoot and was able to get them in. I have never seen a mom and girl so happy before. 

What about the weirdest reaction…

One morning Santa slept in with Daylights Savings Time and the mall suggested I fill in for photos that would be free for the customers. Months later I was working my other job, when some guy came up to me at an event (in front of my coworkers) and said “Weird question, were you an elf?”. When my coworker answered for me, he explained he and his girlfriend had a pic with me and asked if I would take a selfie with him so he could show her. I didn’t live that down for a while.  

We tend to assume it’s the children that might cause some challenging situations but how are the parents?!

Some parents are so appreciative, others are nightmares. A family came an hour or so before closing on Christmas Eve. Our lineup had been cut off by the mall, and when I explained this the lady told me she hoped I got in an accident on my way home. One dad made fun of one of the elves, and when I asked him to leave he did not take it well. Parents were oftentimes the biggest pain of the job. 

What’s the most rewarding thing about your job?

It was the moments that showed the humility in people. One little girl came in asking for her deaf brother to be able to hear on Christmas. Another family came in each year and took pictures in costumes for their dad who was serving in the military overseas (I was able to comp their photo). One family was able to spring their baby from the hospital long enough to take a quick photo with Santa before heading back. These moments made me appreciate my family and those I love a little more. 

Does the job pay well?

It was the best paying job I could get while in University.

How do you deal with naughty kids/kids who question your authenticity?

The most naughty kid I dealt with kicked me in the shin when I asked what he wanted for Christmas, the parents did nothing. I just said Santa’s watching and doesn’t give presents to naughty kids. 

What does a professional Elf’s CV look like – how do you land a role like that?

 I had worked with kids before and wrote that I had a love for the holidays. 

Smiling on demand and hanging out with kids all day is some people’s worst nightmare, how do you have the energy and stamina to stay in character all day?

It was trying at times. There was nowhere for me to eat one year, so I had to use the food court. I didn’t have time to change so I would eat in costume. Parents would constantly come up to me and tell their kids to tell me what they wanted for Christmas so they could avoid the lineups. Some asked for pictures. I knew this was part of the job but sometimes you just wanted to sit in silence for 5 minutes and eat something. I was once on the phone with parents and had to answer a kid’s questions about Elf on the Shelf. My parents always bring that up with how I went from sounding exhausted and mono-toned to cheery in a split second. 

If you’re having a bad day, how do you separate your reality from the role?

Being able to have a reason for doing the job in the first place was the key. Year 1 I needed a camera, year 2 I wanted to go to NYC over NYE…having an end goal was key to getting through the rough days.  

By the time it gets to Christmas are you sick of mince pies and all things Christmas or does it just add to the magic? What’s your relationship like with the holiday season as a result of your job?

It makes you get tired of the 5 Christmas songs they play at the mall. Now that I’m retired I can go back into a mall with fond memories, but I avoided Christmas Eve mall shopping for a year or two after I retired. 

Biggest misconception or preconceived idea you had about the role?

Biggest misconception was that it was going to be easy, it was not. The costume was uncomfortable and most days I worked 12 hours standing in rubber shoes with no padding on a hard concrete floor. It was a lot more physically demanding than I originally thought.  

What valuable lesson has being a professional Elf taught you?

Believe it or not, elfing taught me a lot about parenting. I saw a lot of great parenting over the years and I saw some things I would want to avoid. I am currently 15 weeks pregnant with my first child and often think back to the valuable lessons I saw during my elfing time. 

How will you be kicking back for Christmas once you’ve hung up your hat for another season?

This year I am taking it easy with a baby on the way, but whenever I pass by a mall Santa I always think back with fond memories.  

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