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The Better Living Series#4: Make Me A Happy Home

Our houses are so much more than just shelter from the elements. It’s the place where we expect to find peace; feel safe; be ourselves; relax; represent who we are; have friends over, and most of all, be happy!

Image from pixabay.com

Image from pixabay.com

As an excited first-time homeowner, it’s so important that the place that Mr.D and I call home is somewhere that brings us a lot of peace and happiness – a place that we can’t wait to come home to every day. And happiness doesn’t always come from designer kitchens, finished basements, and Olympic sized pools – although I wouldn’t say no to any of those! But quite often it’s the simple things that that make a house a home and bring a sense of peace, happiness, and well-being. These are the things that make mine a happy home.

1. LET’S GET PERSONAL

Many of us would like to live in the kind of home that wouldn’t look out of place among the pages of Home and Garden – or in my case, MTV Cribs! But in trying to do so, we get so bogged down with the details concerning our chosen theme or colour scheme that we discard anything that doesn’t ‘go’ with the decor – even though quite often these are the very things that reflect our personality and gives the home we live in a sense of identity and signs of life.

A few of your favourite things

A few of your favourite things

I’m often quite underwhelmed by homes that don’t seem to contain anything personal or tell me anything about the people who live there. To me it feels a little soulless. So I love to see photographs, artwork, holiday souvenirs, collections on display, a library of well-loved books, home made furnishings, home-grown flowers in a vase… anything that tells a story and says something about the habits, interests and personality about the owner of the house.

True there should be some flow between personal objects and the style of the house but with a little imagination, you can bring together the most eclectic of objects bound together in your own inimitable style. So our house is most definitely going to refect our love of travel, rock music, food, family and friends, 1980s nostalgia, angels and… Lego! Now that’s some story to tell!

2. DISPLAY PHOTOS

There’s hardly anyone out there who doesn’t carry some kind of device for taking photos which means that they can literally snap away any time, any place, anywhere. Taking photos has never been easier. But unfortunately most people have a tendency to just leave the photos on their phones or tablets or upload them on to social media and then just forget about them. When I worked in a gift shop, most of my customers would only really buy photo frames or albums as a last resort. “Well that’s what Facebook’s for,” they’d say.

Well I personally think that’s a waste of a good photo.

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When I lived at home with my family, I was photo mad. My room was a shrine to me and Mr.D. which some people found nauseating but who cares! Then I framed photos and put them all over the house which annoyed my family as they kept knocking them over. Which in turn annoyed me if the photos were just left lying there, or worse the frame was broken. And when we moved to the States, I couldn’t bring my mammoth collection with me but I made sure I had enough to put all over the apartment.

I love displaying photos and I don’t think a home feels complete without them. There’s nothing like seeing the faces of the people you love most every day, especially when they can’t be with you in person as often as you’d like. Each photo tells a story and gives you the chance to relive memories. I’ve also found that photos can be a real talking point when you have guests over – especially with people you don’t know very well.

And there’s an array of gorgeous frames available to suit everyone’s taste, to simple and elegant to colourful and funky. Yep, I’ve got the lot!

3. A SOFT SPOT FOR SOFT FURNISHINGS

As the child of parents who own a soft furnishings business, I definitely have a liking for soft furnishings – much more than Mr. D does. I think they add a touch of luxury and a lot of comfort and really make a house feel like a home. True, I’m not into doilies, you’ll never find chairbacks or armcaps on my sofa, and I’m not sure how fussed I am about tablecloths. 

 

But I know that I’m most definitely a fan of curtains. I appreciate the beauty of a well dressed window as well as the practicalities of providing privacy and retaining warmth. Beautiful bedding is a must; beanbags and floor cushions provide extra, informal seating for guests, and I don’t believe that a couch is really a couch unless is got throws – perfect for snuggling under when you’re watching TV or surfing the net – and a truckload of cushions. Not that Mr. D would agree with me!

And what I love most about soft furnishings is that it really is the quickest, most convenient, and possibly the cheapest way of instantly changing the appearance of a room.

4. SIMPLY SCENTSATIONAL

Like songs, certain aromas are highly evocative and have an effect on our moods, feelings and well-being. But quite often how fab  – or unfab – your home smells is often overlooked.

When I used to live in a house-share, some of the highly pungent foods that my housemates used to cook would make me want to gag. I would have to hold my breath as I walked into the kitchen and I would be afraid that the not-so-sweet fragrances would be lingering on my clothes. And I couldn’t even escape it in my bedroom where the dreaded smell would be wafting up into my room. So even though I do have happy memories of my time in the house-share, this was not one of them!

But pleasant aromas can have a positive effect on us and can make us feel refreshed, calm, energised and can induce sleep. Everyone knows why people eager to sell their homes are keen to have the aroma of freshly baked goodies wafting around their home, and its that same smell that can be delightfully welcoming to a guest visiting your home. That and freshly ground coffee, and beautifully-scented cut flowers.

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I’m not really a fan of air freshener or highly fragranced cleaning products with that ghastly synthetic smell, so I wouldn’t use those. But I do love good quality scented candles and incense sticks; good old-fashioned drawer liners and lavender sachets; essential oils being used in oil burners, floral-scented water spritzed over bedding, and an aromatic bath doesn’t just do wonders for you but also makes your bathroom smell divine.

And although I wouldn’t normally have it in the house the rest of the year, I really don’t think Christmas is Christmas without some festive-looking and festival smelling pot pourri!

5. MAKE TEA-TIME A REAL TREAT

It wasn’t anything as grand as afternoon tea in a posh hotel or quaint tea-room but growing up, tea-time was a pretty big deal in my family – especially when I went to Granddad’s house. Everything stopped for tea! I guess that’s where I get my love of afternoon tea from.

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Unfortunately with the hours most of us work, tea at four o’clock every day is impossible. It would however make a fabulous,  relaxing weekend treat – just what’s needed to help you unwind. And why not go to town by using real china, cake stands and serving lots of scrumptious, sweet, creamy delicacies?

There’s no reason why tea-time at home shouldn’t be every bit as enjoyable as at your local tea shop.

6.  HAVE A BAKE-IN!

Closely linked to number five, baking used to be regarded as something that your mum or gran would do especially if you needed cheering up or deserved a treat. But for a long time it wasn’t really considered cool or especially trendy. When we wanted a birthday cake or fresh bread, we headed over to our local bakery rather than whip something up ourselves. We all live such hectic lives that when we get home after a hard day’s work, the last thing we feel like doing is creaming butter and sugar!

I knead to bake!

I knead to bake!

But baking can be relaxing, enjoyable and therapeutic.  And shows such as Great British Bake Off, Masterchef and Next Great Baker have reignited our enthusiasm  for baking and enabled us to get happy with the mixing bowl again.

Baking is an activity which involves all five of the senses. Who doesn’t love the sight of prettily iced cupcakes; the texture of bread as it’s being kneaded; the taste of choc chip cookies; the aroma of delicious home baking, and best of all, the sound of everyone happily tucking in!

7. CANDLELIGHT

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If there’s something else I think that makes a home complete other than framed photos out on display, it’s candles – and lots of them. And if they’re scented candles then that’s even better. There’s nothing like the cosy, warm glow of candlelight to bring that touch of magic into your home. It’s great for when you want to unwind, meditate, or get romantic. Candlelight is also great to fall asleep to but for this I would strongly recommend the common sense option of battery operated candles.

8. CREATE YOUR OWN SPACE

When Mr.D and I lived in London, we had to make do with a flat that was a little on the cosy side! But despite this, Mr.D and I both marked out places that were our ‘spots.’ These were places where we could put our feet up; watch a bit of telly; read; have a cuppa; blog or do crafts (me!) play computer games (definitely Mr. D!) and have it looking the way we wanted it to look.

When you live with others, I think it’s important for you to pick a place in the house that you can call your own: a place where you can talk on the phone; read a novel; write etc. and generally just slow down, enjoy your own company and be lost in your own thoughts. Absolutely nothing wrong with that!

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Your own space could be a comfy armchair by the window; a window seat with a nearby bookcase containing your fave novels; a corner of the room with bean bags, floor cushions and a side table with all your fave knick-knacks on it. In fact who even says it has to be indoors? Maybe you could relax on a blanket beside gorgeous, sweetly scented rose bushes in your garden, or a bench under a tree.

In one episode of Wife Swap, I came across a lady who had built a thirty thousand dollar meditation feature in her garden, which she never used for meditating but she did like sitting out there and admiring it (admittedly, we don’t all have the budget for that!)

9. TO READ OR NOT TO READ

Knowing that printed literature is fast becoming obsolete makes me feel sad as just looking at a book puts me in a better mood. To say that I am a bookworm is something of an understatement. I grew up with books, newspapers, and magazines and I cannot imagine a world without them.

Yes, I know that E-readers are all the rage and that everyone reads newspapers and magazines online these days. But when I was growing up, the focal point of the sitting room were the bookshelves that contained Dad’s vast collection of books which he used to sit and read most evenings in ‘his space’. And I like the fact that some kind of reading material perched on a coffee table gives a home a nice ‘lived-in’ feel.

 

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And taking a look at people’s bookshelves also tells you a lot about them. Mine reveal my love of crafts, writing, studying languages and chick lit. My mum’s extensive collection of recipe books gives away her love of cooking, being a bit of a feeder, and ambition to be the next Masterchef! My brother’s books show that he’s sports mad, while Mr. D’s reading material point towards being a Trekkie and avid watcher of Game Of Thrones and that he loved Brian Jacques books as a kid.

10. WHERE THE MAGIC HAPPENS

Sleep: the one thing that most of us can’t get enough of and would never say no to more of – if only we had the time!

When I’m sleep deprived I am not a happy bunny but then, who is? That’s why it’s so important that your bedroom is a tranquil haven where you can nod off easily and get adequate hours of peaceful slumber. And when I’m not sleeping, my bedroom is the place where I lounge around, read, and meditate, so it really is the place where I get some much needed rest and relaxation.

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That’s one of the reasons why I firmly believe that, if it can be helped, you should never use your bedroom for working or studying in. It should ideally be kept clutter-free and as device- free as possible which, yes I know is hard, but we all know how technological gadgets interfere with our sleep. And if you suffer from allergies like Mr. D and me, then its important to keep your sleeping area clean, tidy and dust-free.

Even though my bedroom when I lived at home was pretty loud (which wasn’t a problem for me) most people would generally decorate their rooms in calming, serene colours or darker colours which help them to nod off more easily. Use adequate blinds, curtains and poles for windows as early morning sunlight seeping into your room might cause you to wake up sooner than you would like.

11. PEOPLE!

You can decorate your home any way you like but it’s the people we love who bring the happiness and laughter into our homes. And being a born hostess who loves nothing better than to entertain, I love having friends over to watch movies, major sports games or to stay for the weekend. I enjoy throwing parties and gatherings; hosting formal dinner parties or informal supper nights, and my famous cocktail and canapés events.

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After all what’s the point of having a beautiful home of you can’t share it with your amazing family and friends?

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Tenth Masterchef Winner: Congrats Ping

 

 

 

I’ve finally gotten around to watching the finals of the tenth – TENTH??? – series of Masterchef. This has been a great series with tons of amazing contestants who really gave it their all. I’m still disappointed however, that Alex, the rock n’ rolling wrestler was knocked out early on in the competition (gotta support my fellow rockers!) and I would have loved for Rani to have gone further as she did make me laugh but I think it’s fair to say that the best woman won.

 

All three of the finalists – Jack Lucas, Ping Coombs, and Luke Owen – were nothing short of awesome and really cooked for their lives (not to mention the Masterchef title!)

 

At an age where most people’s culinary skills extend no further than opening a tin of rice pudding, twenty one year old Jack amazed everyone with his flair and skills, and very rarely put a foot wrong. And Luke was a huge fan of daring flavour combinations and experimenting with food. His experiments weren’t always majorly successful but his boldness in the kitchen impressed Masterchef Judges John Torode and Greg Wallace.

 

 

But it was Malaysian-born Ping who really stood out from the moment she entered the competition. The very first dish she made – a curried chicken dish – just made me want to stick my hands through the television screen and grab a mammoth bowlful for myself. Even though Malaysian cuisine appeared to be her signature style, Ping showed her ability as a versatile cook by successfully cooking an array of non-Malaysian dishes. There was no doubting that Ping really put her heart and soul into everything that she was cooking, and her dedication, organization, talent, and the super-fast pace at which she worked were just extraordinary. As the finals approached I was so sure I knew who’d win – and I was right!

 

 

Ping says it’s her goal to introduce more people to Malaysian cuisine – she has ambitions to bring out a cook book and open a Malaysian style café – and I truly hope she achieves this. As someone who has family who hails from this part of the world, I can honestly say that Malaysian food is one of my most favourites. It’s just a shame most people don’t really know about it. The main that Ping created for the finals – nasi lemak – is the dish I always choose when I go to my fave Malaysian restaurant. There are many different variations of this dish but it basically consists of coconut rice with a variety of different side dishes. I always say that the restaurant I often frequent serves the best nasi lemak ever, and their version contains coconut rice; a spicy squid sambal; crispy fried chicken wings; deep fried anchovies and peanuts; a cucumber salad and a fried egg. This would most definitely be my last meal!

I’m so passionate about this dish that I’ve included a recipe for anyone who might want to attempt it. But be warned – it might be addictive!

 

 

I’m disappointed that this series of Masterchef has come to an end and I have to wait for another year. This has been an amazing series and I cannot wait for the next one to begin. Mr. D on the other hand, can’t wait for Masterchef USA to begin it’s fifth season as he much prefers that to our home-grown version. I like both of them and appreciate each of them for what they are but I’ve noticed that if you’re more interested in food than contestants’ dramas, then Masterchef UK it is. And of course we have the delightful John and Greg!

 

Ping hard at work

Ping hard at work

 

So congrats to Jack and Luke for doing so well to get to the finals. They seem like really cool guys who have a real passion for food and I’m sure this won’t be the last we hear of them. And of course congrats to Ping. I just hope she hurries up and opens that café. Nasi lemak, mee goreng, chilli crab… bring it on!

 

NASI LEMAK
Serves 3-4

Ingredients:
•Oil, for deep frying
•Cucumber slices, for garnish
•Sambal chilli (recipe above)

Ingredients for the SAMBAL CHILLI:

40 gram dried red chilli

100 gram onion

25 gram garlic

5 tablespoon cooking oil

80 gram ikan bilis (anchovy)

25 gram sugar (to taste)

250 ml water 

 

Ingredients for the rice:
•250 gram rice
•275 ml water
•225 ml coconut milk (I used lite coconut milk)
•1 onion (about 125 gram), cut into chunks
•1 star anise
•1 large cinnamon stick
•Pandan leaves, tied in a knot (optional)
•½ teaspoon salt
•2 teaspoon sugar

Ingredients for the chicken wings:
•500 gram chicken wings (about 8 pieces)
•3 eggs
•½ tablespoon turmeric powder
•½ tablespoon salt
•½ tablespoon white pepper powder
•2 inch ginger, pounded
•3 tablespoon corn flour
•6 tablespoon rice flour

Ingredients for the ikan bilis and peanuts:
•50 gram peanuts
•20 gram dried anchovies

1 fried or boiled egg per serving

METHOD:

  1. To make the sambal chilli , rinse anchovies with water and allow to dry completely.
  2. Place dried anchovies in a food processor and grind into fine powder.
  3. With a pair of scissors, cut the dried chilli halfway to remove most of the seeds.
  4. Soak dried chilli in water to soften, then drain the water.
  5. Blend dried chilli, onion and garlic to form a smooth paste.
  6. To a heated wok, add cooking oil and stir-fry the ground ikan bilis for about 2 minutes till fragrant.
  7. Add the ground chilli paste and sugar and stir-fry over low heat for 10 minutes, adding water as you fry to avoid burning the paste.
  8. The resulting sambal chilli should be moist and pasty.
  9. For the rice: Put all the ingredients for the rice in a rice cooker.
  10. Leave to cook and remove onion, star anise and cinnamon stick when done.
  11. For the chicken wings: Mix all ingredients to form marinade and batter, and allow to settle for about 10 minutes. 
  12. Dip the chicken wings in mixture, and fry until golden brown and crispy over medium heat for about 2 minutes each side.
  13. For the anchovies and peanuts: Deep-fry the peanuts and ikan bilis separately before mixing together.
  14. To assemble: Serve a bowl of coconut rice with the chicken wings, egg, anchovy and peanut mix, and garnish with 2-3 slices of cucumber topped with sambal and  chillies.

 

Masterchef USA 2013: Thrilling Finale

 

Mr. D and I are so disappointed now that our favourite culinary competition -Masterchef USA – is over but what a fantastic finale it was. We knew it was going to be close as the two culinary hopefuls Luca Manfe and Natasha Crnjac battled it out for the top prize.

 

But we are thrilled, thrilled, THRILLED that Luca has been crowned Masterchef 2013.  Out of all the contestants he was the one who had come the furthest. He’d really struggled in the beginning and we weren’t expecting him to go further than a few episodes. But he improved beyond belief and despite his on-going success he never once came across as big-headed, arrogant or cocky – unlike some of his fellow competitors. And who could forget the infamous ‘butter incident’ where Luca very magnanimously gave Jessie a stick of butter.  He may not have been taken seriously initially but he did seem like a genuinely nice guy who was passionate about food; keeping his Italian heritage alive through his cooking, and his dream to start up his own restaurant. This was Luca’s second attempt at trying to compete in Masterchef and as the weeks went by and he started to progress at an astounding speed and level, it was quite clear that this guy didn’t just have passion – he had culinary talent too. We hoped Luca would win, but with so many big, forceful characters who were equally skilled and fighting to be noticed, we weren’t sure if the mild-mannered New York-based Italian stood a chance.

 

 

The finale kicked off with an emotional start as the two contestants were reunited with their family and friends, including Luca’s sister and father who flew in from Italy – and yes, I did get a little weepy! But then sentimentality was put aside as Natasha and Luca had to prepare a three course meal for the Masterchef judges, Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliott and Joe Bastianich. This is where the excitement began and there were more twists and turns than at a breakdancing competition: The judges loved Natasha’s food… no the judges loved Luca’s food… Luca has a near melt-down as he realises he has forgotten to strain the panna cotta… Natasha ditches half of her dessert when she sees it hasn’t set right… Krissy and Natasha have a last war of words… the judges very nearly declare a draw – it was all happening!

 

 

 

It was clear pretty much from the start of the show that Natasha was the favourite to win and it did look as though she had it in the bag. Each of Natasha’s courses were exactly the kind of thing I’d choose for myself if I were dining out and her presentation was faultless. Also no one could doubt her passion, commitment and talent throughout this season where she hardly ever put a foot wrong. She was a well-rounded home cook who could cook almost anything. She had an incredible knowledge of food and a high level of technical ability. Her flavour combinations always hit the spot according to the judges and even when the other contestants made the mistake of underestimating her, she always rose to the challenge and won. Due to her competence and skill, she hardly ever had to face the dreaded pressure test. All this plus her winning menu seemed to indicate that Natasha would be walking out of the Thunderdome kitchen with the Masterchef title. Luca’s menu was as adventurous as Natasha’s was safe and I wondered if it was perhaps a little too much for the judges who expressed concern over Luca’s choices.

Awful as this may sound, we really hoped that Natasha wouldn’t walk away with the grand prize. Why? Because despite all her culinary genius, Natasha came across as the most unlikeable know-it-all with an extremely bad attitude.  She hardly ever had a genuine smile on her face and just sulked and pouted when she didn’t get her own way – and she positively hated it when her fellow contestants did better than her. The first time the viewers saw her, she talked about how her cooking ability was always underestimated because she was so pretty. Boastful? Natasha? Never! And she definitely didn’t score any brownie points by reducing contestant Beth Kirby to tears.

Thankfully Luca’s gamble paid off and as doubtful as the judges were initially, they LOVED his dishes including the ambitious basil panna cotta with tomato jam. Not something I would have chosen for dessert but according to the judges, it worked spectacularly. A lot of Luca-haters have stated that Natasha was robbed of the title as she was the far superior and consistent cook and that Luca only won because he was a man, and for the first time in the show’s history it was important for a male contestant to win the title. Even when Natasha’s unpopularity was pointed out, her supporters have stated that this is a cooking competition and not a contest based on personality. This is fair enough but it’s important to remember that the winner will go on to great success including their own cookbook and potentially starting up their own restaurant. Would I want to eat at the restaurant of or buy a cookbook from some who does not come across well as a likeable person? No, I wouldn’t – and I don’t think many others would either.

So Mastechef is over for another season and we’ll have to wait another year to see more culinary magic. Congrats to Luca. A very worthy winner who I hope goes on to great things. Proof that sometimes the nice guy does indeed win.

Roll on 2014. We can’t wait for season 5!

 

Armchair Masterchefs

 

My husband and I pretty much gave up on television a while back. No matter how many channels there were, there still didn’t seem to be anything worth watching. But there are still some shows we make time to watch religiously. At a risk of sounding like a couple of oldies who have nothing better to do, Mr. D. and I are addicted to culinary competitions which seem to be all the rage on television these days: Come Dine With Me, The Great British Bake Off, Masterchef, Next Great Baker… you name it, we watch it! In fact it’s more than watching it’s become a full scale obsession. We must tune in to see what happens next: who stays… and who goes. Oops! That’s Big Brother which we don’t watch!

 

 

We have a lot of fun watching these shows. They’re entertaining and informative but they can also be quite depressing. Why? Because after years of thinking that I’m a pretty good cook (I’m no Heston but I’m not bad either) I’ve suddenly realised that compared to the contestants who take part in these shows, my cooking skills leave a lot to be desired. I’ve come to this conclusion after realizing that:

  • My pastry making skills are far from perfect (as explained by Mr. Hollywood and Ms. Berry.)
  • I have no idea how to make sushi – even though I love to eat it!
  • There is a tendancy for me to overcook food (as pointed out by Mr. D!)
  • I can really only bake cakes when I have a little help from my friend Betty Crocker.
  • Rare, medium rare, medium, well done… it’s all the same to me!
  • I’ve lost the ability to poach a decent egg.
  • I’ve never heard of half of the ingredients mentioned in the show.
  • There is no way I can chop onions, apples, carrots etc. so that all the pieces are virtually identical.
  • I have no idea how to debone a duck.
  • There’s very little chance of me being able to adequately filet a fish.
  • I don’t have the kind of palette where I can successfully identify every ingredient in a dish.
  • It’s really not a good idea for me to attempt to flambé anything…
  • Me and sharp knives are a dangerous combination so it’s really not a good idea for me to go at the speed of the professional chefs or the other contestants.
  • I like to take my time in the kitchen – that probably explains why we never eat before 10pm.
  • I probably don’t add as much seasoning as I should.
  • I love eating shellfish – but haven’t got a clue how to prepare it.
  • This may be an Anglo-Italian household but there is no freshly made pasta in this house as neither of us know how to prepare it!
  • If I cook fish so that the skin is super crispy, it’ll be burnt.
  • We like to drench our food in sauce – none of this ‘little smidgeon’ business.
  • We also like large portions in this house!
  • I haven’t got a clue how to make ketchup or barbeque sauce from scratch.
  • I’ve never used most of the gadgets and kitchen appliances I’ve seen.

 

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. We’ve learnt a lot from watching these shows and have got lots of new ideas.  We like to put what we’ve learnt into practice:

  • I can make bruschetta better than I did before.
  • I now know what goes into making honeycomb.
  • I know how to remove bones from fish easily.
  • I know the secret to a good pesto sauce.
  • Seasoning is important!
  • So is not overcooking food!
  • Garnishes are important but there should also have a purpose other than just decoration.
  • We come across lots of new flavour combinations.
  • I know that you should never wash sea urchin (not that I’m likely to cook it!)
  • we’re trying to put into practice that less is more!
  • I know what’s meant by tunnel boning.
  • I also know what a ballotine is.
  • I know how to pronounce words such as ‘coulis’ and ‘melange’.
  • I see the contestants mistakes and know what NOT to do.

 

 

I still have an awful lot to learn and I’m getting there slowly. There’s still hope for me. But I know that no matter how much I learn, I would never want a dressing down from Mr. Hollywood or Mr. Ramsay so there’s no chance of me ever entering one of these competitions. I know which side of the television screen is the safest for all concerned!

 

 

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