Monday, 15 December 2014

Christmas decorating

I often read a blog called "Cupcakes and Cashmere", which is written by a gloriously Californian control freak and tells you how to do your nails, how to "braid" your hair, how to make teeny tiny sweeties or lovely brunches or "style" your coffee table. Style my coffee table!? A problem I never knew I had! Whoop!

The blog has taken quite a ribbing online, most notably from The Huffington Post (those killjoys, unless you are Sarah Koenig you're dead meat), who declared that blogs like Cupcakes are "bad for women". I see where that sentiment comes from, but do you know what's bad for women? WOMEN ARE BAD FOR WOMEN. As in, we seek this stuff out. We like pretty things. We are competitive. We fucking love it. Sorry but it's just a fact.

For my part I am really relieved that Cupcakes and Cashmere exists. I am visually inarticulate and inept. Given a choice I dress as if I have fallen out of a bin and my home decoration would extend to my best clippings from the paper plastered on the wall with wallpaper gum, interspersed with "Torso of the Week" shots from Heat. And Garfield cartoons.

However, at the same time I think it's nice to have a presentable house and to deck your halls with some seasonal stuff. But I need to be told, or at least to be inspired. So I fall on Cupcakes and Cashmere like some sort of information-starved castaway. The author, Emily Schuman, may be a presentation and marketing genius, selling old rope and getting paid per item that she puffs but I don't care. I think her interiors advice is brilliant and she collects interesting things.

Anyway this year I am pleased with the way I've done my house - and when I say house I mean my ground floor, because who decorates upstairs? - though it is not how Emily Schuman would have done it because she lives in LA so her house is exclusively white and gold with colour "pops" (this is affectionate teasing, you understand).

I've gone more this year for a Germanic, Mittel-Europe Victorian thing in Kentish Town.

I always hesitate to buy Christmas decorations in the manner of huge glittery deer, 1ft high "Christmas trees", star-shaped wreaths etc because I feel like a fucking mug, so most years roll round and I look in our box of paltry Christmas decorations and think "God, is this it?" 

So from now on I will allow myself 1 (one) mid-sized Christmas decoration per year. This year it was that fellow, above, the Nutcracker, from the Nutcracker. If you've never read the Nutcracker (as I hadn't until this year) do have a skim through. Christmas decorations - mouse kings, candy canes, the nutcracker doll - will all suddenly make sense. 

Anyway I've noted a theme in my humble bag of decorations, which is a) red b) white c) green d) "old" e) "unbreakable". So that's what I'm sticking with. I think picking and sticking with a style is probably my biggest challenge in life, mostly because I've got no idea who I am, or who I want to be. Emily Schuman doesn't have this trouble. She likes these kids of clothes, this kind of sofa, this is her kind of style. 

I've also always wanted to put together a Christmas food table, crystallised and mythologised in Nigella's Christmas as "The Welcome Table". Again, I didn't want to have to spend 40 billion pounds on this (neither should you want to) and managed to put something together using old bits I had round the house and using mostly fresh food and foliage begged off the florist down the road. 

I remember reading a piece in a magazine about having different heights and levels to the table. I didn't quite manage that, but I did put some grapes on a cake stand, which I thought looked quite nice and was in the spirit of the advice. 

Some detail from my Christmas table:

Note how I have really embraced cliche here. I want eye triggers that say "Christmas" - hence the Stilton, the mince pies, the clementines, the walnuts, the holly, the candy canes. Really not subtle. But mega-festive which is all that matters. 

Friday, 12 December 2014


Apologies for the unforgivably crappy piping here - I was listening to Serial at the same time and so was distracted 

Gingerbread is the most terrific stuff. It is easy to make, easy to handle and then takes and keeps a good, clear shape when cut and baked. Not all doughs are like this. It explains why gingerbread is used to make the men, the houses and so forth - you can cut and re-roll without too much heartache.

Anyway if you have a big tub of excellent Christmas-shaped cookie cutters lurking about somewhere and fancy it, this is a really good dough to get creative with.

Alas, I do not have any novelty biscuit cutters, only 1 single rather lame star-shape, but I do so resent giving over space in my kitchen to something that is only going to be used once a year. The star-shape gets a good year-round work-out.

This quantity of dough makes easily enough for an entire class or a healthy contribution to a bake-sale, even if you cut out your shapes reasonably thick.

This recipe is from the much-maligned and misunderstood Celebrate by Pippa Middleton. The thing is that Pippa Middleton did not write this book. Of course she didn't! How could she have done? And whoever did write this book is a fucking good cook and deserves to be recognised as such.

So here we go:

130g butter
100g dark brown sugar
6 tbs of golden syrup
350g plain flour
1 tsp bicarb of soda
2 heaped tsp ground ginger
large pinch of mixed spices

1 Melt the butter, sugar and syrup together in a medium pan over a low-ish flame until melted, about 5-10 mins, then take off the heat.

2 Sieve together the plain flour, the bicarbonate of soda and the spices and then add the dry ingredients to the wet about a third at a time and mix together. This will look frighteningly sloppy for a dough, do not fret! It will become dough-like upon chilling.

3 Remove the dough to a bowl and then chill for 30 min.

4 Roll out using a bit of flour to help you along. Cut and bake at 170C for about 10 mins, but do a few tester biscuits first. Regular readers of this blog will know that my oven is a monster and burns the shit out of everything so even though the instruction was to bake for 12-15 mins, my biscuits only needed about 8 mins.

Go NUTS with the icing when cool and do a better job than I did.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Boxing Day Buffet

A more onerous task than a Boxing Day Buffet I can't really imagine. But for many of you this year, it is a reality.

How do you feed many people, of wildly different ages with basically zero prep time? Because the day before Boxing Day, if you hadn't noticed, is a bit busy and there's not terribly much time to get anything done.

The answer! Is the same answer as in every mass-catering question and that is: a LOT of very few things. So, an ENORMOUS quantity of a single meat dish. An ENORMOUS quantity of a single vegetable dish and an ENORMOUS quantity of a single carbohydrate. Do not faff about with one quiche, one pie, one of this sort of salad one of that sort of salad. You will go completely crackers.

What I always recommend to anyone who asks me is:

1 A glazed ham
2 Jamie Oliver's Winter Coleslaw
3 Mini baked potatoes (by mini I mean about the size of a five year old's fist - not actually tiny, but not a giant Spud-U-Like jobby)
4 You could also have a coronation chicken dish, depending on how many people you've got coming. Everyone loves coronation chicken and they won't have had it yet in the year (probably).

You must have alongside this ham a wide range of pickles and condiments and for pudding, something chocolatey, like brownies. Out of a packet if necessary.

But how the holy hell are you going to get all this together in time for lunch on Boxing Day?? Not a thing can be done on Christmas Day, after all!

No, quite. What you are going to do is make the ham, the coronation sauce and the brownies on Christmas Eve. The ham can absolutely sit about until Boxing Day - that's what hams are supposed to do. The brownies will be fine in Tupperware. There is a VERY good Coronation Chicken recipe on this blog.

Pick whichever glazed ham recipe you fancy off the internet - Delia has a nice one, as does Gordon Ramsay and Jamie. I've always been a bit scared of the number of Scotch Bonnets Jamie recommends for his jerk ham but he's right about most things...

First thing Boxing Day morning you bung a chicken in the oven, take it out, leave to cool, then strip and add the sauce. If you could bear to, you could also do this in the dying moments of Christmas Day and leave to cool overnight.

Then you make the coleslaw, which is incredibly easy, just an assembly job - the original recipe is here: It's truly a wonderful thing, this coleslaw - not at all like the sloppy, mayonnaise-y coleslaws of your youth. It also brings a much-needed freshness and crunch to the general Christmas food-paintbox of stodge, brown things and sugar.

[A note: you don't have to have a grating attachment on your whizzer to do this, but you must have at least a Japanese mandolin or you're a bit stuffed.]

THEN, 45 minutes before you want to sit down and eat, prick a lot of smallish Maris Pipers (allow 3 per person) and put in them the oven as high as it will go.

It is vital that you time everything to the potatoes. They must be fresh out of the oven, piping hot and desirable as you call everyone to lunch.

There is something for everyone here, trust me. Even for vegetarians - what is better than a baked potato with a lot of butter on it? And the coleslaw is out of this world, any vegetarian who complains about that needs to be booted out onto the street. Peace to the world and love to all mankind was yesterday, suckah.

Who doesn't love brownies? Serve with fruit and cream if you must, but everyone will be happy just stuffing them in their gobs with both hands. Do NOT try to be original with some kind of yucky lemon pudding or a meringue or something. People who like pudding like chocolate pudding above all.

Just don't let the kids catch sight of the brownies before time or it's game over.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Best crunchy crackling and a Christmas pep-talk

My husband has discovered a way of cooking pork belly that produces the lightest fluffiest, crunchiest crackling ever. I think he stumbled upon this by accident, though he claims to have known about it all along, but I swear I've never had crackling this good in the past. Anyway, I'm not going to press him on this issue because if you corner my husband, he comes out swinging, which is enough to give anyone a fright.

Okay so what you do is take a goodly portion of pork belly (about 500g), score the skin in a diamond pattern and then rub a lot of sea salt into it and leave this to sit at room temperature for 1 hour or more.

Then you put it in on a greased baking sheet or tray or pan or whatever and put it in a pre-heated oven at 140C for 3 hours. Then when that time is up, you turn the heat up to absolute top bongoes and cook it for another 30 mins. Then you rest it for 20 min. And the crackling bubbles up like packing noodles, only in a much more delicious way. Try it!

I have started doing pork belly this way for the kids, which turns out to be very easy and cheap as you can put the belly on when the youngest one wakes up from its nap, take both out for a saunter, then it's ready when you come back. I use about 250g for them and cook it for only 2 hrs with a 20 min blast at the end.

They turned out to like it quite by accident. I was doing something with some leftover belly and Kitty ran into the kitchen looking for scraps - this is quite a common occurrence - and I handed her some of the crunchy crackling as she is a fiend for anything crunchy and she dug it. Sam by now wanted some of the action because whatever Kitty is doing, he wants to do, too. My experience is generally that once children have eaten and enjoyed something once, usually in some sort of situation where they have "found" it or "stolen" it - rather than presented it nicely on a plate - they're all set for it. So once a week they get pork belly 3 ways, which is some crackling, a bone to gnaw on like the animals they are, and then some of the actual pork either alongside, or mixed into, fried rice. It's a welcome change from sausages.

Pork belly 3 ways 

Now, Christmas. DON'T PANIC! It's going to be okay. You do know what you are doing, I'm sure and you're only feeling panicked because you're a bit of an hysteric and like making a fuss. It's alright! I don't mean that in a pejorative way - I do the same thing myself.

I mean, this is unless you actually don't do much cooking and really don't know what you are doing, in which case, why on EARTH have you offered to cook Christmas lunch you absolute, total crazy?

I'm not cooking Christmas lunch or dinner this year, so I'm not feeling especially uptight about it but if I were cooking Christmas lunch what I'd be doing round about now is buying and watching Jamie's Christmas on DVD - as I have not been smart enough to record it off the telly in previous years. There is also, I see, an extended collection available on Amazon, a 6 DVD bonanza! Tricky not to buy it really. I may have even bought it already in a drunken stupor - delightful things that I have always wanted seem to mysteriously arrive at this house in brown boxes approximately 36 hrs after I happen to have had that extra glass of wine.

So don't panic if you don't want to. It's all about making lists. Just make those lists, get those deliveries in and roll with the punches. But to my mind, a bit of panic is good. Keeps you on your toes. Just don't mix panic with booze because it will make you look old and mad.

Coming up: what the fuck to do for a Boxing Day Buffet.

Stay with us.

Monday, 8 December 2014

White fish with coconutty leeks

The most extraordinary thing has been happening to me over the last few weeks. I have been feeling, for the first time in my life I think, broody. I know! I know! The madness of the thing. I have spent the last four years bitching and moaning and complaining at length about pregnancy and babies and small children and then just as Sam lets up, stops being quite such a staggering life-destroying, joy-seeking missile, I start to think "Hmm, maybe it would be nice to have more children?"

I have been regarding myself in this moony phase with some wry, critical distance. Enjoying your life again and enjoying your children as they are in their current phase after some years in the wilderness, is not the same as wanting another baby. I think it's easy to confuse the two feelings, thinking that this must mean that you want more.

Feeling that Sam is just too insanely adorable with his little fat legs in their corduroy bags and his chubby little feet and his tiny baby voice and his hopeless baby speech "Dis?" "Bobo?" "Cuggle mama?" "Dada gone??" is not the same as wanting another baby. I want to preserve Sam just as he is, in aspic. I want time to stop because he is so sweet, so good at sharing - still doesn't understand "mine", yet, he's not a hitter or a biter, not really throwing tantrums yet - it's all just too perfect. He's just a Platontic little boy-toddler and the idea that this is all going to go at some point is just awful. So the instinct is to reach for another one, to chase after the dream, blindly, at any cost.

I'm pleased that I'm having the feeling, though. There is a general narrative in this family that I am a cold, unfeeling strange automaton trying to pass as a real human and occasionally I think that the narrative might be partly true. So to experience this genuine gut-feeling is quite a relief.

And then last night Sam woke up at midnight, fussed and wailed and drove me mad until 2.30am when he then vomited all down himself and all over his bed.

As I stamped back downstairs from the nursery to my bedroom in a rage, having finally settled Sam to sleep, slammed myself into bed and punched my husband in the head for breathing a bit loudly, I saw again the madness of it all, the relentless tyranny of babies and allowed myself a wry smile about my "broodiness" in the darkness. It was a genuinely soothing thought, having just cleared up a lot of puke and changed a full set of bed linen, (which always rattles one's nerves a bit, no matter how much experience you have), that at least I wasn't also pregnant, at least there wasn't also some three month old somewhere. Nice try, Mother Nature! Find some other sucker.

I can't believe I haven't shared this really great recipe with you yet, for coconut fish and leeks from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's new whatsit "Light and Easy".

It's very easy and employs raw coconut oil, which is supposed to be very good for you. This, plus the curry paste listed below, are available from Waitrose.

So here we go, for 2. This is not exactly how Hugh does it, but it works very well all the same.

2 fillets of any firm white fish you like
1 70ml can of coconut cream or milk
1 tablespoon of Free & Easy mild curry paste (absolutely delicious curry paste, the best I've ever found)
1 large or two small leeks, chopped
salt and pepper
raw coconut oil (it comes in a jar)

Preheat your oven to 200C

1 Lay your fish fillets on some foil on a baking sheet and season with salt and pepper

2 Melt 2 tablespoons of coconut oil in a pan and then when melted drizzle a little over the fish fillets. Parcel the fillets up loosely in the foil and put to one side.

3 Put the chopped leeks in the pan with the rest of the coconut oil and cook gently until slightly collapsed - this takes about 10 mins. Then put the fish in the oven and cook for 20 mins. If you are having this with rice, probably stick the rice on around now, too.

4 Add to the leeks a tablespoon of curry paste and stir in, then add the coconut cream or milk. Cook this very gently all together for 20 mins until the fish is ready to come out of the oven. The curried leeks might need a bit more salt.

5 Serve the fish flaked onto a bed of leeks and rice.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Croque Monsieur fingers

I've been too happy to write anything recently. Before this, I was too miserable to write anything, now I'm too happy. My life is too much like an advert for ... something. Cashmere socks? Sometimes, some mornings, I wake up of my own accord because it's 7.20am and both children are still asleep, having slept all night without waking me up. This is a miracle. This has not happened for an entire calendar year. And, I can enjoy it because I'm not and - let's face it - not going to be pregnant again. This is it, this is my life now. It's actually okay again.

Up until quite recently my life was fucked because I was pregnant with a toddler or I had a baby and a toddler or Sam was such a living nightmare. Now Sam is absolutely the opposite of a living nightmare. He is a delightful little boy. And you know that's true because I would say - I have said - if he was not being delightful. I actually look forward to the mornings, now. I do not look at the clock from 3pm onwards willing each minute to pass quickly so that I can get Sam in bed and have my arms to myself for a few hours. I resent the arrival of my excellent and only-until-1pm nanny. I look forward to the weekend rather than dreading it like a looming tax return.

I used to tell myself that the nanny was completely essential so that I could get on with important things (like hiding from shrieking whining Sam) and now, to my slight disappointment, I realise that the nanny actually is essential so that I can get on with important things (like work and admin) rather than sitting about all day cooing at Sam, repeating his baby words back to him, snogging his face off and generally being nauseating and repulsive.

And an awful capricious hypocrite. It turns out that my love for my children is conditional - on them not crying and screaming all day long. If you do that, I will turf you to the Romanians. Smile and we're all friends. I am not a good person.


I no longer hate everyone without children. I no longer hate everyone with older children than mine. I no longer hate anyone whose children sleep. I no longer hate EVERYONE. I love everyone! I have made Kitty a birthday card for the CBeebies birthday shout-out whatsit, due to be posted more than the requisite 4 weeks before the big day. I have decorated my house really quite elaborately for Christmas and the houseplant I bought at the end of my last post is still alive. (Unheard of).

Anyway look have a recipe for these Croque Monsieur thingies, given to me by a chef called Robert. These are really good for toddlers as you can batch-assemble them and freeze them and get them out in the morning to defrost then fry them off for lunch. Totally delicious.

Croque Monsieur fingers

Some Crusts Away! bread (their exclamation mark - get it from Ocado)
Mild cheddar and gruyere
Sliced ham
salt and pepper

How many you make of these is up to you. But what you need to do is make a quantity of very thick white sauce (or béchamel - see the How To Make A White Sauce section of this blog if you are new to this) and then use it to sandwich your Croque Monsieur together.

1 So make the béchamel using about 50g of butter, which is about 150ml of milk and approx a tablespoon of flour, add a handful of cheddar and a handful of gruyere to your sauce to flavour it and salt and pepper if you like.

2 Then leave the béchamel to cool for about 20-30 mins.

3 To assemble your fingers, make a sandwich from a slice of ham, some cheddar, and spread some  béchamel on the inside of both slices of bread. Close the sandwich, butter both outsides, wrap in cling film and freeze.

4 Take out a sandwich first thing in the morning then at lunchtime, unwrap from the cling film and fry each side for about 4 mins until golden brown with the cheese slightly melty. Cut into three.

Feed to your toddler while singing "Can't Smile Without You".

Little idiot fatty Sammy baby boy *gibber* *faint*

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Overnight rye buns

Sam is a changed child. In three weeks he has gone from a deranged, clingy, screeching non-eating, non-sleeping lunatic devil toddler, to a perfectly alright 18 month old. He started walking properly, you see. Not stagger-stagger-collapse-wail - but really walking about. Sometimes, when really on a roll, not even wanting to hold your hand.

Before Sam could walk, in those long, dark, awful days when he would just sit on the floor and shriek, I would tell everyone - or just mutter to myself "When he can walk, it will be better. When he can walk, it will be better." I clung to that truth, willed it, wished it to be so. Somewhere, in a dark place, was the thought that maybe walking wouldn't improve things - maybe he was just a little jerk and would be forever this albatross, this non-eating, non-sleeping albatross. Round my neck. Forever.

But then, O Lord, praise praise be - I was right! He walks. He eats. He sleeps. He SMILES!! Hallelujah! Rejoice! Rejoice! Calloo - callay!!

Pirate Sam - walking so fast he's just a blur

Now, in the morning, I can come downstairs with him and just let him roam about while I make a cup of tea. He will sit with me and eat a few bites of my breakfast. He will potter about with his toy brush and my copper saucier, humming to himself while I read the paper.

When we all leave the house together, I put on all their shoes and sweaters and whatever on and then stand at the front door and shout "Come on! We're going!"and out scampers Kitty in her pink glittery high-tops and then a few seconds later Sam staggers into the hallway in his stout little trainer boot thingies, clomp, clomp, clomp - wobble - clomp, clomp - wobbbbllllle - clomp clomp.

And I am a changed woman. I no longer stamp along my little local high street in an unspeakable mood, snapping "I had an awful weekend," at Freddie, my butcher and weeping on the shoulder of Matthew, the coffee shop owner. I smile, I brush my hair, I make polite chit-chat, I light candles in the evening. I have carved a pumpkin in preparation for Hallowe'en. I bought a new houseplant.

The world suddenly seems a bright and beautiful place. So hopeful.

I think.... I am.... happy.

And what better way to celebrate than by taking Kitty - at large this week on half term - to a delightful little baking school called Bake With Maria - ( Normally I absolutely refuse to do anything like this but this place was a 15 minute drive from us, on a Tuesday at 10am during half term. How could I say no?

Maria Mayerhofer is smiley, lovely, patient with small children and enthusiastic about everything - and as we made a simple loaf of white bread I saw plainly and clearly what I've been doing wrong with bread all this time, which is 1) I add too much flour because I am freaked out by how sticky the dough is and 2) I don't knead it for long enough.

Two such simple things!

Anyway the bread was all well and good but it was these overnight rye buns that really caught my eye. I've got a real thing about breakfast. I really, really like it - like that disapproving sister in Magic Mike. And what you do with these buns is put together the dough (no kneading required) - stick it in a bowl in the fridge overnight, then scoop out the dough in the morning onto a baking tray, put it in the oven for 20 mins and you have fresh bread. Fresh freaking bread! And now Sam doesn't require literally constant attention his every waking moment, I can do stuff like this!


Overnight Rye Buns, from Bake With Maria

150g dark rye flour (Waitrose!)
200g strong white flour
4 g dried yeast
4g runny honey
5g salt
290g water
50g natural yoghurt

1 Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl with a spoon - it is a very wet dough so don't go in there with your hands, just go for it with a metal spoon until it's all combined.

2 Stretch some cling film over the top of your bowl and put it in the fridge overnight

3 As soon as you hit the kitchen in the morning, get your oven to 200C and once it's hot put in a roasting tray with some boiling water in it - about an inch deep.

4 Grease well a baking sheet or tray (I use that Lurpak spray stuff - it's fab). Dip a wet tablespoon into the dough and scoop out a goodly amount and plonk it on the tray to form a bun and then repeat.

5 Bake for 20 minutes

Eat with butter, jam - whatever - at your leisure, in your kitchen. Maybe with the paper?


Monday, 20 October 2014

Offal burgers

Very soon my adventures in single parenting will be over. For this year at least. My husband returns on Wednesday and won't leave again until an unconfirmed date in 2015, by which point my new Spanish, live-in granny/auntie substitute will be safely installed in our spare room and my life will be transformed.

What I have learnt is that single parenting is just awful. Awful, awful, awful, lonely and terrifying. And that's when everyone is well and happy and it's not raining. If anyone is ill or not sleeping well, then - fuck. You simply go insane with anxiety and exhaustion.

I'm sure there are people who boss it. I know women who are on their own with one or more children from 7am to 8 or 9pm every day and seem to stay sane - but even that I think would send me round the twist.

But strangely enough the women I know who do the most intensive parenting - their husbands work hard, are away a lot - are also the ones with the pristine houses and sunny, positive outlooks. Maybe it's because they're like that anyway that they seek out this arrangement - I don't know. But they always seem superhuman to me.

I am, already, not the parent I would like to be - even when things are good - and when I am on my own I fail even my own very basic tests of okay parenting. I once vowed that my children would never eat their dinner in front of the telly. Ha ha! Except for every meal they have any weekend I am on my own. And some weeknights, too.  I once vowed that I would never let a child take a bottle to bed and suck itself to sleep with it. Ha ha! Except for every night that I was on my own in the Spring, concluding in Sam's raging sleep/bottle association.

For two weeks before his most recent trip away, my husband was at home, with nothing much to do - and it was like paradise. Really, it was like the Garden of Eden before the Fall. He took Kitty to nursery every morning, he threw Sam dangerously high in the air, making him scream with joy, walked him about the kitchen holding him by the hand and toted him the five flights of stairs to his bed for his lunchtime nap. He was there, first thing, if I just wanted to go and have a quick shower. He was there, at bath time, if I wanted to skip the start and do a few things downstairs.

Anyone with a husband (or wife) who travels a lot will know all about the exit row and re-entry row. They are the rows you have in the 24-48 hours before a spouse leaves and the row you have when they come back. There's always one. The longer they're away the worse they are. Anyway, I tell you this: it will be worth all the exit and re-entry rows I've had this year (lots) in order to have my husband back again for a good long while.

If only that Sam eats more in front of Giles in order, I think, to impress him. And Giles does not suffer from the manic anxiety that I do when it comes to feeding our children. He returned 3 weeks ago from investigating the "Paleo" or "Caveman" diet and decided that our children must have offal in their diet. I sniggered into my 11am Ferrero Rocher and said quietly "Gooooooood luck!!" but sent him anyway up to Meat NW5, our local butcher, where he purchased a lamb's heart, some bacon, calves' liver and two top-quality beef burgers and turned them into "offal burgers".

I insisted that these were trialled at lunchtime, when a flat-out refusal of food doesn't have the disastrous consequences that it has at bedtime. Kitty was circumspect but Sam poked it down, with an enthusiasm that I haven't seen since he first tasted Pret's Carrot Cake, and then licked the plate. I was stunned and humbled and ashamed.

Offal burgers, or "Dad's burgers" are now a new, exciting and permanent fixture on our strict seven-day rotating meal planner.

Please do not feel that you have to attempt these. Giles thinks that children eating a high-fat, high-protein, high-offal diet will make them geniuses and live forever, but there are plenty of people who think this is perfectly nuts.

Offal burgers

2 best high-quality beef burgers
weigh them and then take equal weights
streaky bacon
lamb's heart
calves' liver
a small handful of soft herbs - parsley and sage for e.g.
2 small handfuls of medium Matzoh meal

1 Mush up the burger meat in a bowl
2 finely chop or whizz the heart and liver and add to the burger meat
3 add the herbs and matzoh meal
4 form into patties and fry gently for about 8 mins each side

Thursday, 2 October 2014


"Just hold your nerve for one more night," the doctor said to me. She heard me pause at the end of the  phone, she knew I was on the edge, unable to speak.

"Is there anything else?" she said. "Is there anything else bothering you?"

"My husband's not here and I'm just... I'm just so tired," my voice wobbled. But I didn't want to cry, even on the phone, to this private GP - Dr. Hold Your Nerve - who I didn't really know, who couldn't help me. And I didn't understand what she meant by "anything else". My 15 month old had a temperature of 103C, was covered in a rash, woke up every 45 mins at night, crying. What MORE do you want? What ELSE did there have to be?

Anyway I was so tired. I was so confused. I could never have imagined that life could be this hard, this unforgiving. (And I have done a daily commute on the Northern Line.) I had never in my life felt such a crushing weight of responsibility.

That was two and a half years ago. Kitty was the baby, my husband was away in America and my mother was away elsewhere. I was desperate for someone to help me, desperate for someone to care about Kitty's illness, to care about me.

But people seemed so unconcerned. Sympathetic but not nearly as panicked as I thought they ought to be, really. It felt like the room was on fire and everyone was wandering about, carrying on with their lives, while I was screaming "FIRE! FIRE!"

But what can they do? It's your child. It's your problem. What everyone else knew was that babies get ill and the smaller they are the worse it is. And when they are ill and scream at night, or scream all night, then you have to be there to look after them. Sometimes it goes on for days.

She wasn't especially nice, Dr Hold Your Nerve. She had three children, all grown-up and is one of those women, like horsey people, who just isn't very sympathetic and cannot think back to a time when they, too, were new to this and they, too, were scared. 

But she gave me the antibiotics for Kitty that my NHS GP, the stupid c*nty box-ticking drooling moron, had refused to prescribe. The antibiotics worked, like magic, as they can do, in 24 hours. But most of all, Dr Hold Your Nerve's words have stayed with me.

Since then, of course, I have found the often-mentioned Dr Mike, a private paediatrician who is always on the end of the phone or the end of an email to talk sense, to batter away the confusion brought on by exhaustion. He knows my children. If I look or sound rattled he doesn't ask me if there's anything else fucking wrong. He knows.

Yet even with all the private paediatricians in the world, small children are all about holding your nerve. And eventually you are so good at holding your nerve that you just do it all the time, instinctively. You've cleared up so much puke and shit, single-handed, in the dark, half-asleep that you ought to qualify for some kind of NVQ.

I can't say that I don't still clench my teeth so hard together when Sam is very ill (as he was for all of last week) that I give myself a headache. I can't say that I don't still feel close to losing it at the GP when some patronising donk is patronising me. I can't say that I don't sometimes feel like walking out of my front door and walking and walking and never coming back.

But I have learnt to hold my nerve. I have learnt to just zoom in on a point in middle distance and just keep rubbing their tummy or patting them on their back, despite it doing no fucking good at all and they just keep yelling on. Because I know that once they turn two, it all gets easier. They can vaguely describe what's wrong. They don't just scream. During the day, they can flop in front of the telly a bit (even now Sam loves In The Night Garden), rather than needing to be carried about all day. And how many really awful, zero-sleep nights can Sam dish out between now and when he's two? Even if it's one a month, that's only 8.

That's the kind of maths I do, in the dark, while being deafened by earache screams. It's the kind of maths that lets me know, for absolute and complete, total certainty that I cannot have another child. I cannot do this again. Because you can get so good at holding your nerve that it feels like second nature. But nerves fray, don't they? And after they fray they must, surely, snap! And I don't want to know what happens next.

I keep forgetting to post here successful recipes from my column in Grazia, which my editor there, Lucy, has really graciously said that I can do once that issue of Grazia is off the stands. But what with lead times and my sieve-brain I forget what I've done. 

But these Lahmacun (pronounced LAH-MAH-JUUUNE) were a runaway success. Giles is a total expert on them, having been on holiday a lot to Turkey, from whence they originate and also having an office in Archway which is close to a lot of Turkish cafes - and he called these "historic" so there you go. 


Makes 8

For the dough
1 tsp caster sugar
2 x 7g sachets fast action dried yeast, dissolved in 4 tbsp warm water
300g strong white bread flour 
1 tsp crushed sea salt
150g Greek yoghurt
50ml olive oil plus extra for brushing
lemon wedges, to serve

for the topping

250g minced lamb
2 ripe tomatoes, deseeded and finely diced
1 onion, finely chopped
2 tsp Turkish dried chilli flakes (ul Biber) or 2 red chillies, deeded and finely chopped
handful of finely chopped flat leaf parsley leaves
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 Add the sugar to the dissolved yeast and stir. Allow it to sit for about 10 minutes until it becomes frothy.

2 Sift the flour into a large bowl, then add the salt. Then mix the yoghurt and the olive oil. Make a well in the centre of the flour and pour in the yoghurt mixture, along with the yeast mixture. Work the flour into the liquid using your hands until a dough forms, then work the dough into a smooth ball - add some extra flour or water if you need to. 

3 Knead the dough for 5 minutes, then allow it to rest for 10 minutes before kneading it again for 1 minute. Repeat this process another 3 times, then return the dough to the bowl. What a massive ball ache this is. Just think to yourself how delicious it will be in the end. 

4 Stretch some cling film across the top of the bowl to make an airtight seal then rest for a couple of hours until it doubles in size. Knock back the dough and divide it into 8 balls. Roll these out into roughtly 15cm (6in) diameter circles and brush with olive oil. 

5 Preheat the oven to 220C. Line 2 large baking sheets with nonstick baking paper. 

6 To make the topping, put the lamb, tomatoes, onion, chilli, parsley and a generous amount of salt and pepper into a large mixing bowl and smash it around with your hands a lot. Try not to feel grossed out by it. Turn out the mixture on to a chopping board and, using a large knife, chop it for several minutes until it resembles a paste. 

7 Divide the topping into 8 portions and smear over each of the dough bases (you don’t need to cover the dough entirely). Place each on the prepared baking sheets and bake for 10-15 minutes , or until the dough is cooked and the crust begind to turn golden. 

Serve with lemon wedges and eat, if you can prise apart your tense, clenched jaws that is.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Slutty cake pops

I've been made aware recently of a sector of my peers I never knew existed until a few weeks ago: couples who are trying, but failing, to have a baby.

My family are hopeless in many ways, we can none of us barely hold down a job or remember each other's birthdays, but one thing we are super at is getting up the duff. Sometimes by accident! Sometimes we don't even know we are in the family way for weeks on end! Sometimes the pregnancies are not viable, but often they are. Then we ring each other, slapping ourselves on the forehead going: "Pregnant agaaaaaiiinnnn".

There are 7 grandchildren, soon to be 8. If my mother had her way, there would be 20. When I got married, next-eldest said to me darkly "Just mind out how quickly you have a baby." I didn't listen and Kitty was born 9 months after my wedding day.

So it has never crossed my mind that some couples I know don't have children because they can't, rather than not wanting to.

The worst thing about people knowing that you're finding it difficult to have a baby must be the sympathy. No wait, not the sympathy - the pity. The Oh Poor You. Especially if you are having IVF. I don't know the full horrors of the process but I know at the very least you have to have injections all the time. And then there is this endless waiting. And the disappointment. Or what if you keep having miscarriages!?! Awful. Just awful! No wonder no-one wants to talk about it.

I'd rather, probably, if it was me, just let people assume that I simply didn't want kids. Or didn't want them right now. I'd rather people thought that I was just too glamorous, successful, independent and fulfilled emotionally and intellectually to spend 2, 3, 4? years in the nappy wilderness.

And, also, there might be lurking there that feeling of Oh Fuck It let's give up. Let's just get a fucking puppy and say yes to every bastard who asks me to be godmother. Because it's not like there aren't plenty of opportunities to see what a mind-boggling fucking shambles your life becomes, or can become, or will be at times, if you have kids. Observing your peers - rich or poor, organised or chaotic, relaxed or neurotic - disappear into the same quicksand as you calmly pick out tasteful outfits and holiday in Barbados must make the actual tangible desire for a family tricky to hold on to. Because you're not a bloody idiot, you know what babies mean.

Some people aren't broody. Like me! I can confidently say I've never felt broody. I had to ask Giles, the broodiest man in the world, the other day what it meant, what it felt like. "It's like winterlust - really, really wanting winter to come so you can wear sweaters and have fires. You forget that it's just dark and depressing and rains all the time. Or it's like really wanting any of that shite you buy on the internet that comes in the boxes that I have to jam into the recycling."

Not everyone longs and longs for a baby and just knows that it's right and it will complete you and all that cobblers. And if you're not broody at all, but hypothetically think you want a family and believe you would enjoy family life - if you then have a hard time having a baby you might think O God maybe it's a SIGN?! I would have thought that instantly. I would have thought, if it had taken a long time to get pregnant, that it was a sign saying: "Don't have kids because you are not broody so it means you'll be shit at it."

Lining up for IVF, heading down another path of possibly yet another miscarriage in order to get a baby, which may or may not complete you or may or may not just totally ruin your life and bring you to your knees physically, emotionally and financially must be confusing.

And then!! (And this is the worst bit - well, it would be for me -) when you actually do get the baby you would feel like you could never complain about it!

HA! What a fucking nightmare, to have worked so hard for this child that you then feel like you can't ever just throw your hands in the air and say FUCK THIS SHIT because you sacrificed so much for it.

Having a baby is such a choice these days. It's - do I want this kind of life, or that kind of life? There are options, having a child is not just a biological imperitive. And thanks to the wonder of private medicine, you can spend a limitless amount of cash on having a baby: where do you stop? At what point do you say - "I don't want to have a child that much"?

Even thinking about it just for the length of writing this piece - without even talking to someone in the middle of IVF - makes me feel depressed and anxious.

And who would talk to me about not being able to have a baby?? It's no wonder these people are invisible to me. I would just hiss "Count your fucking blessings. Babies are awful. Sam has been sent here on a mission from someone who hates me to fuck my life up."

Because that it what it feels like at the moment. Don't get me wrong! I find Sam cute and winning. But he is also a shrieking, dementing hell toddler. Although he's not bloody toddling! Bloody 16 months and no sign of walking, though his crawling is amazing. Dr Mike my paediatrician said "Yes, some way off walking yet," cheerfully - the bastard - but "there's nothing wrong with him". "Looks like a very happy chap!" he added, as Sam pointed at Dr Mike's stethoscope, looked at me and said "Dis?" meaning "Pass me this thing so that I can break it or hurt someone with it."

He's also having too much milk, said Dr Mike. Yes thanks, I know that Sam the ravening Avent bottle fiend is having too much milk. Two nights ago, when he was feeling particularly troublesome and arseholish Sam demanded 4 bottles in one night. I lay awake in bed for two hours racked with anxiety. What have I done? How have I allowed this to happen? What. Have. I. Done?

I haven't felt so panicked and incompetent as I have in the last few weeks since Kitty was roughly the same age. I feel like I have arrived home to find that my house has been bombed and the only tools I have with which to clear it up are a dustpan and brush.

(Note, please that I am working hard now to correct this awful state of events, though it's hard because Sam has not much else in his life except for his bottle, his "bobo" - he can't walk, can barely talk, doesn't suck his thumb, have a dummy, breastfeed, have a blankie or a rabbit. It's just his bobo, that is his only comfort.)

I have let things slide because Kitty is my evidence that problems during years 1-3 just work themselves out eventually. They all do something awful - I mean, it's all relative but there's always a problem - but by the time they're 3 even the worst habits have subsided.

And by 5 years old, I see from observing other children, they're almost always passable as human beings. That's why there is a thing in this country about the Under-5s. You're either under 5 and therefore a frightening, unpredictable lunatic, or you're over 5 and reasonably manageable.

So I have brushed off Sam's various manias as passing phases, as we are always encouraged to do - but his bottle mania needs correction. I won't go into details. I can feel your eyes glazing over as it is.

Let's turn, now, to cake pops, which I have always avoided because I don't like "trends" in food and because performance bakery takes time and patience that I just don't have.

But the other day while I was in Brent Cross (where else?) I went into Lakeland and my hands, as if with a life of their own, reached out for a pink silicon cake pop mould and purchased it with my husband's credit card.

I took it home and made, in 1 hour, some cake pops for Kitty's nursery bake sale. They were properly shoddy but the kids didn't care. They went freaking mental for them.

So here's how I did it.

Slutty cake pops
makes loads - about 20

2 eggs - weigh them (shells on)
then the same amount of
self-raising flour
caster sugar
a drop of vanilla essence if you like (I don't)

icing sugar and decorations

Preheat your oven to 180

1 Cream the butter and sugar together, then whisk in the eggs one by one and fold in the flour. You might need to add some milk to the mixture to loosen it up

2 Either grease your silicon cake pop mould with butter or spray with a baking spray (I use Lurpak, it's brilliant - get it from Waitrose!)

3 Fill your mould with cake mixture to just below half-way, then fit the top half on and press down well round all the little spheres so the mixture doesn't leak out as it rises.

4 Bake for 12 mins. Let the little cakes cool in the mould if you've got time. I didn't.

5 Make up your icing with icing sugar and water. Not too much water, only a tablespoon or so and much more icing sugar than you think - about 5 tablespoons to one of water. Don't forget to SIEVE your icing sugar, this is so so important or you'll get lumps.

5 Dip your cake pop sticks into the icing sugar and then skewer each cake pop and leave to harden. Again, I didn't do this, but it works well if you have the time to.

6 Dip the pops into the icing (you can add colour or flavour to it if you like) and then roll in decorations. If you don't have a cake pop stand a lump of old, brown mashed-up Play-Doh in the bottom of some sort of cup works very well.

There are entire blogs and websites dedicated to cake pops - mostly about how to cover them in chocolate, if that's a thing you want to do. Me? I can't be arsed with it, especially as kids don't care. They just want some crazy lollipop cake-thing covered in neon decorations. Also I have only ever, at most, got an hour to spare. You can blame Sam for that.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Plum and apple cobbler

When Kitty was a baby, during her toddlerhood and emerging girlhood I, and everyone else, marvelled at her independence, her fearlessness, her willingness to sleep in her own bed in her own room, her gung-honess at playgroups and enthusiasm for holiday resort kids' clubs. I have never had to fetch her from nursery early, except for once when she wasn't well. She has one or two little friends there, has had a marriage proposal, and loves her teacher.

I could barely believe my luck, or believe that she was my child.

When small, I refused to go to nursery except for a handful of days a term, made a giant fuss about going to school, wouldn't go to school at all for a whole year when I was seven. I would never, ever have agreed to be left at a kids' club in a hotel and I never liked any of my teachers until I was in Sixth Form, and even then I kept my distance from them. They never knew I liked them. I never even let a smile out.

But Kitty! Kitty was different. She was my redemption.

So when these most recent long summer holidays loomed with no nursery, most of Kitty's friends away on holiday and no foreign holidays for us, (Giles is working non-stop until the last VAT quarter of the 21st Century), I thought I would be super-clever and sign Kitty up for a lot of London-based holiday activities, groups and camps. She would love it! I cackled to myself. "She's just the right type of child," I thought. I boasted to everyone about how organised I was and how sorted I had it.

But it turns out that she isn't that type of child at all and refused to go to every single group - the only activity that she agreed to and liked was a 30 minute tennis lesson in the park up the road.

I feel like I have mistaken my child for someone else.

It was the same every time. She just turned to me, her eyes huge and hunted as the regarded the unfamiliar church hall and strange children, and said "I want to go home."

I was baffled and privately furious, although I tried my best not to let it show. I said to myself "It's okay if she doesn't like it," but it wasn't. It was a bitter disappointment. Not just because the alternative to a playgroup for Kitty was bumming around North London with me on various errands, watching far, far too much television and nagging me to play "Doctors" or "do Abney's voice"; both "Doctors" and "doing Abney/Captain Hook/Rumplestiltskin's voice" are activities that are okay for precisely 23 minutes, after which time I powerfully want to turn my face to the ceiling and let out an insane bloodcurdling Bertha Mason scream.

But there is something else at work - it's the awful fear that Kitty will suddenly turn into the same sort of child that I was - clingy, strange, un-clubbable, unable to have fun or join in, suspicious of everyone. I am angry with that child for being so pathetic and needy, for cutting me off from possibly enjoyable experiences, fun times and friends.

But she is not like me and she will not be like me - and even if she is, that's no reason to get in a huff about it. And, moreover, it's not her fault that I was such a weedy child. It's not anyone's fault. That's just me.

The truth of it is that summer holidays can just be fucking boring.  Children can go a bit mad and feral during them, especially if they are not running around with some huge gang of kids in local parks or in the countryside - that kind of feral and mad I would embrace and find hilarious - that old-world kind of "Don't come back till it's dark" attitude of parenting is fine by me.

But if there is no bloody gang and it's just them and you in a narrow townhouse in North London, with a playdate once a week if you're lucky, they go the wrong sort of feral and mad. They go strange and Howard Hughes-ish.

I bumped into a mum from Kitty's nursery at the playground the other day and she said "We're nearly halfway through the holidays now. Another three weeks to go!" A cold hand clutched my heart. Fucking hell! I thought it was nearly done! We will simply fall to eating each other.

Anyway, look - I must just get a grip and think laterally. Fine, so she doesn't want to go and play with a load of strange kids in a musty church hall. Fine! We'll go on buses and on the tube and find an exciting experience in that in itself, we'll feed the ducks and find new playgrounds. We'll visit cousins and go swimming. We'll just have to do other stuff.

I think I also mistook this apple and plum cobbler for something else. I have never made or eaten any sort of cobbler before but I've always liked the sound of it. So I made this with the remaining plums and apples from my garden, which have not been devoured by wasps and birds, from a recipe I found on BBC Good Food.

The result was perfectly okay but I don't think there was enough of a contrast between the fruit base of the pudding and the bready topping, which it turns out what a cobbler is. The cobble element was just a bit bland, slightly unnecessary carby and fluffy. Simon Conway was over for dinner when I made it and he said "I think it's nice," which was very accurate - it is merely "nice", rather than amazing. If I had done this with a crumble or flapjack topping it would have been much better.

But, still, this recipe works perfectly well so if you would like to try your hand at it, despite everything I've said, here's how it's done.

Plum and apple cobbler
Serves 4

For the fruit

About 8 ripe plums, halved, de-stoned and then quartered
About 5 small apples, peeled and roughly chopped
juice of 1/2 a lemon
sugar to taste

For the cobble

100g self-raising flour
50g butter
50g sugar
1 egg
3 tablespoons of milk

Preheat your oven to 180C normal ovens and 160C fan-assisted. (Simon, that's gas mark 4 if you're ever brave enough to use your oven and want to re-create this quite dull pudding).

1 Put the apple, lemon juice, a sprinkling of sugar and 1 tsp of water into a pan and stew with a lid on for 5 mins. Add the plums and stew with the lid on for another 5 min. After this 10 min, taste the mixture and add more sugar cautiously until you have something not too sweet. A too sweet fruit pudding is just so revolting, you will regret it.

2 Put the fruit in an oven dish with at least 1 inch of space left between the surface of the fruit and the upper limit of the dish for the cobble to fit in and rise.

3 Put the flour into a bowl and cut the butter into it, then rub into until you have a crumb mixture. Stir in the sugar, then add the egg and the milk and mix to a batter. Dollop over the surface of the fruit and scatter over, if you like, some walnuts or flaked almonds or chopped hazelnuts would be nice. Or even some granulated sugar for a bit of crunch. I'm panicking now, trying to make this pudding more exciting…

4 Bake for 30 min. Eat with cream or custard or something - anything! Practice your best "Mmm, yeah, it's nice, it's… fine" face.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Spiced lentils for Camilla

Almost my first feeling after I've invited someone round for dinner or sent a lot of party invitations out or basically instigated any social occasion is regret: the food I cook will be awful and inedible, they will wildly outstay their welcome and I will not get to bed until 1am, we will have nothing to talk about, the whole affair will be awkward and awful.

Which is why I never see any of my friends. Sorry, I mean, which is why I never see any of my "friends", because, not ever seeing anyone means I don't have many. Any. 

But Giles is away again, making a gameshow in Canada, (don't ask), and I have delivered the manuscript for The Bad Mother, (out in January 2015 so don't get too excited), so in the evenings I haven't got much to do these days except sit about feeling guilty and shitty about how much I shouted at bath time. 

- - As an addendum to this, my children just fight at the moment. It's all they do. Whenever Sam comes anywhere near her, Kitty rains blows down on his head, but rather than keeping his distance, staying out of her way, doing other stuff or hiding behind me, Sam goes looking for it. He crawls up to her with his mouth open in delight, his eyes bright in anticipation of a fight, pretty much. Then she wallops him over the head with a toy car and he yowls in pain and humiliation, looking to me for - what?? What the fuck, Baby Sam? - stay out of her way you fucking mentalist!! - - 

So this week I had my old friend Kate round for a tonic water and my other old friend Sarah Langford round for roast chicken and a jammy pudding and then when I found myself left with some excellent smoked salmon plus condiments, 3/4 of a cold roast chicken, a tin of lentils and the makings of another tremendous pudding, I got carried away and texted Camilla Long.

It was a long shot. It was a Friday night. Camilla is very, very glamorous. But even very glamorous people are sometimes not on holiday in the dog days of summer and also I thought there was an odds-on chance that I would text her and she would not be available for dinner, that she would be out doing something glamorous, and then I could eat an entire 3-course dinner by myself and go to bed at 8.07pm. 

But she was available! That's the thing about glamorous people, they often complain about a lack of invitations because people think "She is too glamorous, there's no way that she will be free". 

And then I started to worry. O god, I thought. Camilla Long is coming round and I am giving her leftovers. Fuck! I was wearing jeans and the same sweatshirt that I had worn four days in a row! 

I swapped my sweatshirt - marked with abominations sustained during Kitty's nursery's guinea pigs' little holiday chez Coren - for a Whistles sweater that I have been saving for a special occasion. Then I started rummaging in cupboards for my finest performance crockery. Then, further, I panicked and decided to serve shots of very cold, very expensive vodka with the smoked salmon starter and began to worry that Camilla would arrive in a ball gown expecting to see Giles, Tina Fey, Cara Delevigne and Cary Fukunaga chatting around my dinner table, when it was just me. 

I needn't have worried! Like all incredibly glamorous people, Camilla knows when to dial it down and arrived, thoughtfully, in civvies. "Today has been a total knee-slide," she announced. I felt great relief that I had put that vodka in the freezer.

One of the leftover dishes that Camilla gamely ate without questioning why the fuck I had cooked it, was a dish of spiced lentils and leftover roast chicken.

I am obsessed with these spiced lentils at the moment, although the original recipe specified an amount of pepper so wild it rendered my initial go at them completely uneatable. But I toned the spice down and now they are brilliant; I do love a dressed-up lentil or a chick pea - they are capable of genuinely being as totally a nice thing as a plate of pasta or rice. These lentils go best with fish or chicken or you could eat them on their own if you were feeling like being a bit of a hippy.

Spiced lentils for 2

1 400g cooked brown lentils, rinsed
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper - this still leaves the lentils with a reasonable kick, so if you are a bit timid spice-wise (and I totally respect that), reduce this to 1/4 tsp
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
4cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
oil or butter for frying - about a tablespoon
1 medium onion, or two small ones. A few shallots would do if that's all you've got or half a massive white onion

1 Toast all the ground spices in a dry frying pan over a low heat for 5 minutes

2 Chop the onion and add it to the toasted spices along with your oil or butter, a generous pinch of salt and the ginger. Cook this gently for 10 minutes.

3 Add the lentils to this mixture and mix round a bit. You will want to serve these with a side of yoghurt or soured cream.

For the roast chicken, I toasted 1/2 tsp each of cumin, ground coriander and turmeric in another dry frying pan, then added a knob of butter and the roast chicken. I fried that together for about five minutes, then added 3 tablespoons of coconut milk.

Camilla and I sat about discussing all our mutual friends, did not scream when she saw a mouse streaking across my living room, and left promptly when a smart car arrived to collect her at 10.15pm saying "I know you like to turn in early."

I shut the front door after her, sat down on the bottom step of the staircase and wondered how I could be more glamorous. Number 1: stop eating lentils.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Chicken Sesti

So there I was standing in a strange kitchen and a strange country all alone at 4pm (Italy time) facing about a 1/4 of a metric tonne (seriously! seriously!) okay it was about 1kg, but really like 1kg of chicken breasts and thinking "How am I going to turn this into anything edible?"

It must have been 32C in that kitchen and I hadn't even turned the oven on.

It was hubris - the Lord strike me down! - I had offered to cook dinner for everyone well before we had set out for the week in Tuscany to celebrate my sister's wedding - because I thought I was such a damned great cook and also I thought I'd be at my leisure because I was leaving my husband at home with my children.

But all that happened was that I spent days drugged up to the eyeballs on Nytol, occasionally "babysitting" my nephews (iPad) doing my hair for two hours a day and having 1.5hr naps. The rest of the time I was swimming and forgot entirely about this promise to cook on my last night.

I scavenged the main kitchen of the house and brought it down to the kitchenette in the funny little garden flat I had been assigned, just so that no-one could see me sweating and panicking and swearing about cooking dinner for 12 people using only chicken breasts, vegetable oil and paper doilies.

I am exaggerating - me? I had more than that. I also had about another kilo of mozzarella, a tub of the finest and sloppiest burrata I think I've ever seen, (and as you can imagine, I've seen some burrata), a huge tray of cherry tomatoes and a lot of that nasty unsalted bread you get in bloody Tuscany that is edible for about twenty minutes once it's out of the oven and then hardens to a brick.

What's vaguely interesting about this dinner was what I did with the chicken. I don't like chicken breasts, they are just so annoying. Any other part of a chicken is easy and forgiving because it's so fatty. But chicken breasts are lean and dry. You can poach them, but then you have to conjure up some kind of sauce to disguise their corpse-like appearance. You can fry them but there was so much of it, it would have taken me about 8,000 years and I was a bit foggy what with all that Nytol still washing around me. Not to mention hot, have I said how hot it was?

So I just shoved it all in the fucking oven with some lemon, garlic and rosemary, oil and salt at 180C for 25 minutes and then set about disguising it with something else.

I laboriously chopped up a lot of that hateful bread into teeny weeny bits, (there was an ancient food processor in a cupboard but I was so hot, you see, running with sweat I was, that I just couldn't face getting it out and trying to make it work), and then fried it slowly with very finely chopped garlic and about 150g of butter. Then once the chicken was cooked and setting about cooling and turning into shoe leather, I covered it with the garlic crumb.

I've never really cooked in another country, not properly. But cooking that dinner in that kitchen made me realise why all Italian food is the way that it is. What you have at your disposal is a lot of quite good fresh produce and then these enormous bushes of sage and rosemary everywhere you look. (Not basil though, I didn't see one basil plant in my 5-day tour of Tuscany, which makes me think that Italian snails are as keen on it as English snails).

So I went outside and pulled up huge branches of sage and rosemary and put them in everything. Gnocchi got covered in 300g of grated Pecorino and then I chopped in some fresh sage and also a handful of leaves fried in more butter. Then a huge tomato salad, just the cherry tomatoes chopped, a few slices of very finely-sliced red onion, with burrata spooned over and salt - this recipe was courtesy of next-eldest sister who had made it two days previously.

So in the end the shoe leather chicken was okay, with the gnocchi and the very wet tomato salad on the side. I call it Chicken Sesti because Sesti was the name of the place we were staying and it's not a million miles away from Chicken Kiev.

And that's what to do when you find yourself in Italy with no shops nearby and you have a lot of chicken breasts and 12 people for dinner.

Look at my sister's fackin amazing huge dress:

Friday, 23 May 2014

New-style summer slaw

I stole this pic off the internet. Sorry :(

In our house we reserve our most arch and nasty sneers for writers who cite writer's block. We are pragmatists! If either of us displays any preciousness about the process of writing (although not about what happens to our words afterwards) we leap on each other like Veloceraptors.

If I ever see Giles dare to make a few notes about a forthcoming piece I will shriek in high falsetto "Dear Diary, today was a really good day. Saw Polly in the coffee shop, I think she really likes me. Did 40 press-ups today. My arms look amazing!" Then I have to stop because I am falling about laughing and cannot speak and then have a coughing fit.

If I ever dare to mention this blog, or the e-book spin-offs, in anything except totally derogatory terms, I get a machine-gun ribbing complete with flopping hand-gestures, questions about how much my last royalty cheque was for (£39.50) and so on. 

It is not personal, we're just not terribly nice people and both grew up in houses where mealtimes were a fight-to-the-death with put-downs and schools where everyone was foully mean to each other all the time. To be seen to be making an effort was the worst crime in the world. We've also both worked in newsrooms where you just sit down and write any old shit most days and just file it on time. In the end, when commissioning editors are casting around for writers, they mostly just want someone to file the fucking copy on time. When I started writing for magazines I could never get used to how long deadlines were. "Could you file it for… hmmm…." the comm ed would say "the end of next week?" and then pause, audibly grimacing at the short notice. I would shout with laughter, my pen still hovering over a  piece of paper, poised to write "4 PM". 

So the idea that you don't just sit down at a laptop and start writing, not stopping until you are finished is anathema to us. "Do you read each other's stuff?" people say. Giles sends me his copy sometimes, just so that I know in advance what completely made-up things I will be appearing in The Times as saying. But I almost always only say "It's brilliant! It's the best thing I've ever read! They are so lucky to have it!" because if I don't say that, he will snap "I don't write by committee!!" and then throw a chair out of the window and burst into tears. 

I never show Giles my copy, ever, because he prints it out, reads it line by line with a ruler and gives it back to me covered in red scribble. "Serious problem with tenses," it will always be will have saying. 

And yet… and yet… there are only so many words in the world, only so many things one has to say, only so many things one is inspired to cook. 

This is a roundabout way of saying that I have an e-book deadline for the end of July, which I am finding time-consuming. The new book is called "The Bad Mother" and I haven't especially mentioned it because I am so used to not really discussing ongoing projects, because in our house you are so busy writing and writing and writing that you never stop to mention what you are writing because you are writing it and not just fucking talking about it. My favourite thing ever is when Giles opens the paper and there's me in it with a massive pic and a huge headline and he goes "Wow!" and I think "BOSH" because he never saw it coming. Plus, if I tell him that I am expecting something in the paper and they don't run it and I look even a tiny bit disappointed, Giles drives at 400mph to the editor's house, shoulder-barges the front door and throttles them - and that's one hell of a responsibility I tell you. 

Anyway although a lot of the posts here can be semi ripped-off for this "book" and are all very good memory-jogs, the fact is that I am having to write this "book" mostly from scratch. And I've never been ace at that - I'm brilliant at starting books, but not so terrific at finishing them. That's why I'm a journalist - a sprinter - and not a novelist - a long-distance runner. But the plain fact is that I have to finish it and the only way to do it is to spend all spare writing time when I am not putting clean pants in the right place, making Kitty's packed lunch, heaving Sam around the place or applying St Tropez Gradual Tan (Light/Medium), writing it and not, alas, this blog. 

But I feel sorry for you, because that's the kind of patronising person you have decided to hitch your cart to, and so here is a recipe for a new kind of summer slaw. I actually totally forgot to take a photo of it, so I'm sorry about that. But it looks like a slaw just with no revolting claggy mayo or yoghurt dressing on the top.

I gave this for dinner to my friend AC and her husband Matt, who doesn't eat much and never says he likes something if he doesn't - and he called it "noteworthily good", so you may proceed with confidence. 

New-style summer slaw
I have called this "new style" because I think it sounds very modern

for 4 as an accompaniment 

1/2 red cabbage
1/2 white cabbage
1 tsp grated onion (if you've never grated onion before, it comes out as a kind of gloop)
4 radishes
1 small fennel bulb
a handful combined of chopped mint and coriander - these are quite important so do go to some effort to source them

for the dressing

Chinese vinegar
juice of one lime
1/2 tablespoon (ish) grated fresh ginger
fish sauce
toasted sesame oil
1/2 clove garlic grated 

1 either slice with the grating attachment of your food processor or with a Japanese mandolin the cabbages, radishes and fennel bulb into a bowl. Add the grated onion and mix well. 

2 Take a small bowl and put in the lime juice, fresh ginger. Now add about a teaspoon each of the fish sauce, toasted sesame oil and Chinese vinegar and taste. Now add more of these sauces judiciously until you have something you like the flavour of. This is not because I cannot remember how much I put in of each! This is just because not everyone likes a dressing like this the same way. (It is because I cannot remember.) Anyway look you can't really go wrong so just go for it. Pour the resulting dressing over the slaw and mix well. 

Now write your novel. 

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Chicken and dumplings

This looks horrible but honestly it was delicious

I have been asked to do a bit more on the feeding of small children and I do, as it happens, have some new things to say on this fabulously tricky subject.

So the situation is this: Sam will be one next week, (which is staggering considering he's still such a massive, fat, melon-bummed baby who can't crawl or anything), and will no longer eat puree and isn't especially terrific at feeding himself. Or so I thought.

Because I am not terribly bright, I have always thought that one day babies go from being spoon-fed puree, to sitting down and eating giant Sunday roasts totally competently, on their own, with a knife and fork.

I thought there was something wrong with Kitty when she failed to do this. In fact, I now see that there is a torturous in-between stage where you have to put aside your bourgeoise expectations of keeping your children and their terrifying barbarism at arm's length and get your hands dirty.

It has always struck me as bizarre that although as a species we live entirely unnatural lives - we fly in airplanes, have central heating, electric lights - when it comes to babies people go wild about everything being natural. You must co-sleep because it is natural, you must breastfeed exclusively because it is natural, you must chew up your kids' food and spit it out of your mouth into theirs because it is natural. I'll tell you what else is natural - dying of diphtheria, headlice and being murdered by Vikings.

But in this instance, I concede that if Sam is going to eat, I have to drop the fucking attitude.

So feeding Sam is now a three-pronged attack. I give him something large to hang on to and gnaw at, like a corner of bread, a triangle of hamburger, a ball of sausage; other small pieces of stuff are placed on his highchair tray, a bit of potato, pinches of chicken, pre-chewed (hurp) bits of serious meat like stewed beef or spare rib or whatever. Then from a bowl of meat, veg and carb I pinch together little combinations of food and feed him by hand.

For example, at lunchtime today I bought a chicken and avocado sandwich from Pret and gave him that; I tossed away the salady leaves, gave him some of the bread to chew on, pinched tiny bits of chicken up and put them on his tray and then mashed up marble-sized combinations of chicken, avocado and bread to post into his gob with my fingers.

It's a very slow, rather messy process but the fact that he's eating it, (and with the sandwich meaning I haven't had to bloody cook anything), outweighs everything.

I also find that most mealtimes have a sort of arc of speed that you have to respect and have patience with. It takes Sam a while to get going and warm up - he spat out the avocado a few times and turned his head away from the offered chicken for a few minutes - then he decides he's hungry and things descend into a sort of orgy of gobbling, finger sucking, licking, gaping mouths, trembling tongues. He wants to feed me, jamming things into my mouth and going "maaaah", (just to check, I suspect, that I am not trying to poison him).

yes the bib is from Ikea. yes I know you have the exact same one

Then he slows down and starts launching things off his tray onto the floor, hanging his head over to see where it has gone. I usually take this as an indication that the savoury part of lunch is over. Today he got for his pudding half a slice of Pret banana cake (no icing), which he poked down with a speed and alacrity I haven't seen since his father left for America. Then a yoghurt, then a 5oz bottle, then bed.

All this might seem obvious to everyone else, but I would never have believed you when Kitty was Sam's age that I could have bought a sandwich and fed that to her for lunch. It would have halved my blood pressure. Or she might have refused to eat that, too.

A great success last night was a meal of chicken and dumplings, inspired by the song She'll Be Coming Round The Mountain ("Oh, we'll all have chicken and dumplings when she coooooomes…") Sam liked it a lot. He likes especially to hold on to a chicken bone like Bam-Bam and chew on it. Kitty was more reluctant about the dumplings, but she ate the chicken and I provided on the side some chopped cucumber and carrots for her to have with it.

Chicken and dumplings with gravy

6 chicken wings or 3 chicken thighs
85g self raising flour
40g beef suet
parsley if you have it
about 150ml chicken stock
1 tsp plain flour

1 Roast the chicken pieces at 180 for 40min in a small tin that can also go on the hob.

2 Meanwhile make the dumplings - mix together the flour and suet with a large pinch of salt (if you want) and a sprinkling of parsley - then add some dribbles of water and bring this dough together until you get a soft consistency, not too dry. Shape them into four or six balls.

3 Steam these in a steamer or in a sieve over a pan of boiling water for about 20 minutes. They can sit in the steamer to keep warm until you're ready for them (just turn the heat down).

4 Take the chicken out of the oven and put the pieces aside to cool. Sprinkle a teaspoon of plain flour over any juice or grease in the tin (there won't be much, don't worry about this) and mash it about until there is sort of a paste. Then pour over a splash of the chicken stock and mix this in. The pour over the rest of the stock and whisk over a medium heat until you get a gravy. You can add a dash of soy to this for a bit of extra flavour.

If you are thinking that this seems to be an awful lot of hassle for kids tea then you are right, it is. But once you've done it once, it will seem less of a hassle the next time - and the dumpling dough can be made in advance.

Try not to worry, if you too are at this stage of weaning, about waste. It's just one of those things with kids, it's impossible to get amounts exactly right. It's also difficult to cook very tiny amounts of things, so compost and use leftovers where you can but beyond that, just put it in the bin and forget about it and make a donation to Oxfam to assuage your guilt.

Don't not try out new things because your heart sinks at the idea of waste (as mine did with Kitty, which is why her meal repertoire is a bit thin). Children obviously have things that they'd rather eat than not and no child should be expected to eat everything - or, some days, to eat anything - but at the same time they will just eventually eat things if they come across them often enough.

For example Kitty and Sam eat toast with quite bitter marmalade because that's what we eat; Kitty will drain the dregs of your espresso if you look the other way for a millisecond, because that's what there is lying about the house. She will even, one time in three that it is offered, eat an entire floret of broccoli. I've always put it in front of her and not said a word about whether she eats it or not. Not like I'm so fucking brilliant, but it does work. Sometimes she'll fancy it and nosh it down, other times not. I'm the same really.

Other things:

- To save time I will quite often cook a batch of rice up at either breakfast or during Sam's lunchtime naps, which can then later be quickly fried off in a pan with some butter and frozen peas.

- New potatoes will cook in 20 min in an oven at top whack, and they can then be roughly mashed with butter and you don't have to bugger about boiling anything. NO SAUCEPAN TO WASH UP.

- I hammered a nail in to the wall next to my sink and hang on it a special j-cloth, to be kept chemical-free, to wipe small faces and hands so that we don't go through 40,000 wet wipes every mealtime.

- I always keep handy for Sam a lot of yoghurt, Ella's fruity pouches and rusks in case dinner is a total disaster and he needs to eat something else just for my own neurotic peace of mind.  I personally don't think that a child under about 18 months will be canny enough to reject food because they "know" that you will give them something else. It is hard with your first child to understand that, but they are terribly dim - if they can't see it, they don't know it's there. Or rather, they can't be sure enough to hold out for it.

- Now Sam isn't eating mainly pureed veg and is drinking cow's milk, I give him Abidec vitamin drops every day. Kitty has chewable vitamins, like a fortified Haribo. The "sweetie fairy" leaves it for her on her Trip Trapp every morning and she gobbles it down. Sucker.

-I read to my children at teatime. Pretty much the only thing Kitty is not allowed to do is eat her lunch or tea in front of the telly. If I let her she would sit and eat everything on her plate, but I just can't do it. Everyone's got a line they don't cross and that's mine. So instead we read and it means that she will keep eating after she has satisfied her basic hunger, rather than running off, and also she will distractedly stuff things in her gob that she might otherwise be suspicious of.

On an entirely separate point, it's my birthday today. I know how you all like to keep up to date with important events in the Rifle Calendar.

Since you didn't ask, I am 34. I don't feel at all old. The oldest I've ever felt was when I was 25 and although at times it hasn't felt like it, life has improved every year since.