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.