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*