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.