Sunday, 20 October 2013

Cupcakes with buttercream icing

I've been complaining a lot recently. I know, I'm sorry. It's just that things have genuinely seemed quite bleak; my whole life has felt like one long irritated thought, or one incredibly long moment holding Sam, while bent at an angle trying to do something for Kitty, one-handed (get out Playdough, cut up a pear, turn on Tom&Jerry, play "birdseed"...???...). I've constantly felt like it's 2.05pm and it's hours till bedtime and it's raining and we've got no visitors and I've been awake since 0430 and I can feel a cold coming on. I've just been feeling like that all the time. I've felt like a weary beast of burden, or like I'm sitting in Economy on a flight to Australia, I've felt so far removed from my old self, my old life that I can't even remember what I miss about it anymore.

Mothers say "I miss going out to the cinema on the spur of the moment. I miss reading a book for hours in bed," and I think to myself, blankly "I have never done any of those things. Have I?"

But in the last few days there has been a little shift, imperceptible perhaps to anyone but me. It started with Kitty, who has been going through the day like a real trooper on no afternoon nap. Up until now, if I let her have one, she'd nut out for 45 minutes and then be awake until 9pm. But if I didn't let her have one, the afternoons were unhappy and strained: I felt so bad watching her droop sadly against the sofa, sucking her thumb, all but dozing off. Now even if I put her in bed she doesn't go to sleep, but rolls around for a bit and then chirrups to come out. And she is cheerful all afternoon, if a bit quiet at times.

And now Sam, who will be 6 months old on the 5th November, has started to show signs of sitting up. Not solidly - these developments are so slow - but he's getting the hang of sitting on my hip and hooking his arm around mine to hold on. If I put him in the sacred Ikea Ektorp highchair, he can sit there for maybe five minutes, batting a rattle about while Kitty covers him in stickers, until he yaps to be picked up.

Sitting up is probably the single event that a babyhood pivots on. Sitting up brings with it new abilities to concentrate on objects, to put toys with an interesting mouthfeel in the gob, to drool, gently on the carpet and watch one's sister caper about going "bler-ler-ler-ler-ler" for your entertainment.

So all of a sudden in the darkness there is distant beam, the sweeping swoop of a searchlight that will, inevitably, pick out my lifeboat.

Don't wish it away, people say. And I understand that. I don't want to be flippant about it but, really, there is little about Kitty's early babyhood that I miss. Not now, for god's sake! Not now that we have actual conversations and in-jokes and she can tell me what she wants and where it hurts and we can discuss the complicated relationship between Tom and Jerry. We can draw each other pictures, play hide-and-seek. Her favourite thing is to put away the Ocado order. It's just trippy. Blissful. I thought it would take years to reach the stage that all parents get to where they prefer spending time with their child than with anyone else - but in fact here we are.

Why would I miss a time when we couldn't really communicate? When she couldn't tell me what was wrong or why she was sad or angry or frustrated? Why would I miss a time when it was so difficult to have fun?

It is easier to have fun with Sam because I am so much better with babies than I was. The hours with Sam just don't feel as long as they did with Kitty - even if he is having and off day and being a bit of a jerk. I've just done so much time, now, with little kids that I can shrug it all off. Ach, it's just another day in the nuthouse. If he wakes up early in the morning or from his lunchtime nap I don't curse the world and feel crushed and ill, I just think to myself that for now I just have to hang on until bedtime and, after that, I just have to hang on until he's walking - then we'll be laughing.

So all of a sudden I feel incredibly positive about everything. I am planning a Christmas party at our house and I am going to go WILD and get a florist in and a kids' entertainer and stuff. I have also slowly started to get to grips with the various horrifying areas of clutter in the kitchen and playroom and it's quite amazing what having a good clear-out can do for your general mental well-being.

And all the baking I am doing for Kitty's nursery bake-sales is good for the soul. You do end up making an awful lot of fairy cakes when you have kids for one reason or another and I have grown sick of looking up the recipe. But then I remembered a way of making a sponge that is terribly easy and I didn't even need to look it up to know how to do it.

It is this - you take an egg (if you want to make 6-8 fairy cakes) or 2 eggs (if you want to make a dozen or more, or a small cake) and weigh it/them. Then you use the same weight of self-raising flour, butter and caster sugar.

Then you make the cakes in the normal way - so you cream together the butter and sugar, add the egg or eggs and then fold in the flour, decant into a baking vessel and bake for about 8-10 mins.

Once you have committed this clever short-cut to memory, you can start being creative with your toppings without it feeling too onerous. I made these for a recent bake sale at nursery and I am terribly pleased with them having, as they do, a topping of piped buttercream.

You make buttercream like this:

Take half a pat of butter (125g) and leave to come to room temperature. Then you beat it together with increasing tablespoons of SIEVED - this is important - icing sugar. The actual amount of icing sugar is really up to you. Just do it and taste as you go along until you have something that is pleasingly buttery-sugary.

Then you can dye it any colour you want, (bearing in mind that combined with the slight yellowyness of the buttercream any colour won't be wildly vibrant, but I think that is more classy anyway), beating the colour in well - (I use Dr Oetker) - and fill a piping bag with it. Using a star-shaped nozzle, pipe the buttercream in a circle around the cupcake starting from the outside and working in. It's much, much easier than it seems - I have never done this before and it only took me one or two goes to get something I was really pleased with.

I absolutely love all those toppings you can get in the Waitrose baking aisle - tiny butterflies and pearls and stars and all that - and I attached a selection of those to the buttercream and then chilled the cupcakes until they were needed.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Passionfruit tartlets

My husband went out the other night and didn't come home until 3.30am. I know because a car alarm woke me up at 3am and instead of thinking "I'll just go back to sleep," I crept downstairs to check if he had come back and was asleep in the spare room. He was not. For some reason I hit the fucking roof, calling him 11 times, texting saying "Where the fuck are you??" and trembling with rage.

He hustled back immediately, apologising. In the morning he apologised more, in different ways, trying to find the right combination of words to make my face not do the I Hate You Death Stare I'm Going To Kill Myself And The Kids thing.

He didn't understand what the problem was. He sometimes comes back late, it's not a big deal is it? He wasn't doing anything bad, just, you know, messing about with R--- B--- and J---- C---- in the Groucho. There weren't any girls! Except C---- L--- but she doesn't count! And look, here he is, giving Kitty her breakfast at 7.30am and burping Sam and stuff. He's not a shit dad! Or really a shit husband either!?

I didn't know, in truth, why I was so pissed off. But then I got a bit teary and without even thinking said "Do you know what a c--- I feel when I'm at home flicking through magazines and washing fucking bottles and you're out ripping up Soho? I never, ever get to do that. I never go out for dinner, saying I'll be back at 11pm and then don't fucking come back till 4am. Never. I just look after the children and work and do Ocado orders and cook. And VERY OCCASIONALLY I go to sleep."

But you could go out, he said. I'd love you to! Why don't you? Go! I'll do the kids in the morning you don't even have to do that!

That wasn't the point though. That wasn't it. I don't want to go berserk in the bloody Groucho and crawl to bed at 4am. I didn't even really want to do that before I had kids. I certainly don't want to now. But I want to want to. Do you see? What I crave is my husband's freedom to want to do things like that. To go out and have actual fun, not just pretend grimly to have fun, (all the while wondering when you can go home), and be having so much actual real fun that you can just see where the night takes you. If I managed to organise some night out in town it would come to it and the pressure would be so immense that I would fail to enjoy myself for even three consecutive minutes and be at home in bed by 11pm.

My husband thinks that he is not free because he is always home for bathtime and barely looks out of the window without asking my permission. But he is: in his head, he is free. He can let go of his domestic life, if only for a few hours, if only aided by 17 gins, and feel like tomorrow doesn't matter. Or at least, he will deal with tomorrow when it happens.

I, on the other hand, am a prisoner in a cage that I built for myself out of layers and layers of responsibilities and routines and insecurities and neuroses and the awful knowledge that a father's absence, no matter how involved he is in family life, is, in the end, neither here nor there. But a mother's absence is like a massive crater left by a huge neutron bomb. You are always being watched, and judged - if only by yourself. It is mad but it is a fact and it is suffocating. It's not fair. It's just NOT FAIR. And it is why women with small children can get so very angry.

[Pause. Look down. Look up. Smile.]

When I started to learn how to cook I was such a completely rock-bottom beginner that even now I tend to think I am being really extremely adventurous for cooking something as complicated as lasagne.

I am always utterly baffled by those things they do on Bake-Off like "yes I'm making orange blossom, cardomom white chocolate and thyme shortbread dippers with a curried Florentine crumble topping" and you're like WTF? What's wrong with chocolate chip cookies? (Don't answer that.)

Anyway I thought I ought to try something more exotic and that is how I ended up making Edd Kimber's passionfruit tartlets. His original recipe was for caremelised banana and passionfruit tartlets but I thought that might do my head it, so just stuck with the passionfruit.

It involved the making of a passionfruit curd, which I was excited and nervous about as it involves cooking a lot of egg yolks without scrambling them. And usually if there are eggs to be scrambled or a sauce to be split or pretty much anything to go wrong in a recipe I will get it wrong.

But they turned out well! Despite being a bit fiddly. And incredibly impressive for an after-dinner treat when no-one feels much like a huge slab of actual pudding. I took the leftovers up to Kitty's nursery and the teachers there said that they kept well overnight. I know! I'm such a creep.

Passionfruit tartlets

1 pack puff pastry from Jus Roll (all-butter, in the gold packet)
80ml passionfruit puree, strained (which is the insides of about 5 passionfruit whizzed in a blender or whatever and then passed through a sieve. Do not worry, the blender will not mash up the passionfruit seeds, they will just get left behind whole in the sieve. Passionfruit seeds are INDESTRUCTIBLE. Like Lego.)
100g butter
5 egg yolks (gulp)
175g caster sugar

1 Grease a 12 hole muffin tin and then roll out the puff pastry thinly.

2 Cut out 12 pastry rounds. The recipe specified a 10cm cutter, but I thought that was too big so I went one down. Press each round carefully into a muffin tin depression and prick the bases with a fork. Stick in the fridge for 15 min.

3 Line the pastry with a triple layer thickness of cling film - it doesn't melt I promise - and fill with baking beans (or whatever you use if you don't believe in baking beans). A reader has pointed out to me that you can also use fairy cake cases to hold the baking beans against the pastry. Very brilliant idea - I will be doing this in the future. Bake these in a 180C oven for 15 mins, then take out the beans and film and bake for another 8 mins until brown. I did not leave mine in for long enough and they turned out a bit anaemic so make sure yours are nice and tanned.

4 Allow the shells to cool in the tin.

5 For the passionfruit curd put the egg yolks and passionfruit puree into a pan over a medium heat  and whisk constantly until it becomes thick. This will take a while, about 10 mins or so. It will get really quite thick, too - so if you're wondering "Hmm, is this only how thick it gets?" then keep going a bit longer. Once it is thick add the butter and stir to combine.

6 Set this aside to cool a bit and then fill your pastry shells. Sprinkle the tops with caster sugar and either caramelise with a cook's blowtorch (or a real blowtorch if you are also an electrician) or more likely shove under a hot grill for 30 secs. 

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Dundee cake

" the way," said next eldest sister as we wrapped up our telephone consultation about Kitty's earache, "my friend Sarah says that she reads your blog. So it'll now be spreading like wildfire through St Thomas's prep school in Fulham."

And I like to encourage these things so I thought I would do a special post to say:


(now you all stick your hands in the air and scream)

I must say I don't really understand West London. That's not to say I don't like it, I just don't understand it. Whenever I go there I always seem to end up at the wrong end of a very long road lined with identical houses, stopping shaggy-haired Sloanes to ask for directions. 

I am assured by people who know these things that people who live in West London live there partly because they have houses in the countryside in a westerly direction and living so close to the M40 makes making a break for it on a Friday less hellish. 

It is probably prejudiced of me to assume that everyone living in West London is a shaggy-haired Sloane who disappears to Gloucestershire from Friday-Sunday every week, but this blog is nothing if not a collection of sloppily-applied prejudices. If you disagree with me, feel free to express yourself in the comments section. 

But I really do think that my new reader(s) might appreciate this recipe for Dundee cake, which is the technical term for the fruitcake that my mother has been making once a week for the last 20 years. It is very light and crumbly and popular with most children. It also keeps very well, so handy to make on a Thursday and take to the countryside for the weekend. You know. Just if you happen to be going. 

Dundee cake

Pre-heat your oven to 150C. 

For this you need an 18-20cm tin. This is important. I used a tin that was far too large and the cake came out quite flat and therefore slightly overcooked (although still delicious). So do, please, source a correctly-sized tin - or double the quantities for a larger tin. If you grease and line your tin, you will make your life considerably easier for yourself along the line. 

170g butter
200g self-raising flour
140g caster sugar
3 eggs
1 cup glace cherries
500g mixed dried fruit - this can be anything you like, raisins, currants, mixed peel, chopped apricots and dates. Go wild. 

1 Cream the butter and the sugar together.

2 Separately whisk the eggs and then add to the butter and sugar in short bursts. I have never managed not to curdle this and neither, my mother tells me unapologetically, has she. So if it curdles don't worry.

3 Fold in the flour with a metal spoon.

4 Tip in the mixed dried fruit and glace cherries, stir to combine. As with any cake, only stir until the ingredient is reasonably evenly distributed and then stop so as to ensure a light and crumbly texture

5 Put this into your appropriately-sized tin.

6 Now put this in your 150C oven for 2 hours. If you, y'know, happened to have an Aga, you can cook it in the simmering oven for 2.5hrs. I know that seems like a long time but that's the way with some kinds of cake.

7 This is very nice on its own, or it is extra-terrific with a lemon icing, made with sieved icing sugar (the sieving is very important) and the juice of one lemon.

Eat with a cup of tea while making a list of all the shite you need to pack up for the weekend, idly wondering if two houses is really worth all the bloody hassle.