Saturday, 21 December 2013

Pear and cardamom cake for Petra




Excuse my absence. I don't know what I've been doing. Oh yes I do! Potty training Kitty. I won't go into it, but there's been a lot of washing, scrubbing, mopping etc. I'm like Hercules trying to clean the Aegean stables!! Only I am better at accessorising. I like to team skinny black jeans and my new Adelphe diamond-slice ring with eau de toddlerpiss.

But look it's nearly Christmas and though I loathe Christmas recipe pull-outs at this time of year - so confusing, so distracting - I thought I would recycle this cake that I made for my Grazia column (she said casually) and show it to you here, in case you don't read Grazia and you're looking for a mildly spiced cake to serve at some party or other.

And say Merry Christmas to you all! But, especially, to a girl called Petra I once knew a long time ago. A friend of a friend. I bumped into her husband the other day at a party, who I never recognise because he keeps changing his spectacles. At the moment he is wearing some intimidating horn-rimmed pair. "Petra reads your blog," he said. "I'm sorry I don't, I…" he floundered. It's alright, I said. You're not my demographic.

Anyway Petra is absolutely terrific, but she wasn't at the party because she was working! At Christmas!! But I think she is a lawyer and so just works and occasionally, blinking at the daylight, leaves her office to eat a sandwich and breathe some non-recycled air.

(My favourite story about lawyers, by the way, was when I emailed my friend Jamie, who is a commercial barrister, on a sunny Bank Holiday Sunday about something - I wanted to email while I remembered what it was - and I joked "As it's a sunny Bank Holiday Sunday Jamie, I expected a swift response as you will, obviously, be at work." And he fucking was!)

The thing I remember most about Petra was at a dinner party I said I liked her necklace, some really beautiful magnificent choker-y thing with all manner of swizzles and sparkles on it. "It was my grandmother's," she said. "There's an extra bit you can fit on it," she said, describing a hook and eye in the air with her hands, "that makes it even bigger."I just stared at her, boggling at the poshness of it all - I thought she was going to say she got it at Accessorize.

Thinking about Petra made me a bit sad. There are all these people, I think, old friends, who read this blog but I don't see them or speak to them. Then it turns out they've been there all the time. It's possibly best this way, when I think about it. If we were together they would just have to sit there while I rattled on and on just talking about myself and telling boring stories that start off about one thing and then turn into something else and then I suddenly stare out of the window and shout "Oh look there's that fucking massive parakeet on the bird feeder again!!!" At least if you read this blog you can get up and go and make yourself a cup of tea or something. Get a bit of chocolate to sustain yourself until the pay-off.

And while you're at it make this cake why don't you.

This is a very classy cake because of the addition of cardamom, that most people are too scared to use in sweet baking because they don't want a cake that tastes like curry. But it doesn't taste like curry, it's very nice. It's like something they would make on Bake Off.

But it is absolutely huge, so only make this if you have a lot of people coming round.

Pear and Cardamom cake from The Ethicurean cookbook
Serves about 20, genuinely

315g salted butter at room temperature
315g caster sugar, plus extra for dusting
5 eggs (!!!) lightly beaten
315g ground almonds
50g plain flour
1tbsp ground cardamom
1ripe pear (I used tinned pears, which worked very well)
70g dark chocolate

Heat the oven to 170C. Line the base and sides of a 23cm springform cake tin with baking parchment

1 Beat the butter and sugar together for about five minutes, or until pale and sort of fluffy. Then add the eggs. Don't fret too much if it curdles, just beat the shit out of it with an electric whisk or whatever until it doesn't look so awful. 

2 Add all the dry ingredients and mix until just combined. Fold the mixture a few times with a spatula.

3 Turn it into the tin, level the top then place in the centre of the oven and bake for 20  minutes.

4 Slice your pear thinly and break the chocolate into pieces. 

5 Remove the cake from the oven. It will still be liquid. Press the chocolate pieces into the mix across the entire cake. Lay the pear slices on top of the cake and then sprinkle the cake with some sugar, for caramelisation and a bit of crunch. 

6 Put back in the oven. The recipe said for another 40 mins but mine took another 60 mins for a skewer to come out clean. All ovens are different, alas, which is why baking is such a fucking bore. 

Eat with creme fraiche, I'd say. While wearing a really amazing necklace. 










Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Dirty curry




About six months after I started teaching myself how to cook I realised something: in order to be a good cook you have to be organised. And you have to be tidy. The best cooks are always incredibly neat and tidy. Even Jamie Oliver, I bet - open his wardrobe and there will be 40 identical pairs of distressed jeans, hoodies and trainers all lined up neatly.

(Incidentally, I saw Jamie Oliver at a party the other week. Saw, not met, you understand. Later in the evening, when I was feeling less shy, I put a hand out and very lightly stroked the back of his jacket as he passed me in the throng - so lightly that he wouldn't be able to feel it. He's incredibly tall, by the way - he must be six feet two at least. And broad. Huge! He's like a bear. You'd never think it.)

Anyway I have never been especially tidy. Not some awful great fucking slob, but not tidy. So I was going to have to smarten up my act. You know the sort of thing I mean, get things out of the cupboard and weigh them out before you start. Read the recipe ALL the way through. And clear as you go so that your kitchen isn't such a fucking scum hole by the time dinner is ready that it puts you off cooking anything more complicated than toast ever again.

My heart sank at this. Did I really HAVE to be tidy? They don't seem to do anything as prosaic as clearing up on telly. Ah, telly. I see, that's why I thought that cooking requires no effort beyond dumping things in a pot and stirring - because TV cooks don't tend to wash up on telly because it doesn't make good telly. Telly, you see, is not real. 

But cooking is mostly about getting things out, weighing them, finding a clean bowl for them to sit in for a minute and then when it's all done, washing every damned thing up and wiping down all your flipping surfaces. Did I have to? Have to, have to? Maybe I could just leave it and someone else… my mum… would come along and do it. No wait a second I was not living at home anymore. And although my husband will happily clear up after me, the payback is that I have to then hear about it for the next week. 

However: that was nothing, NOTHING to how bloody organised you have to be when you have kids, especially when taking them anywhere. When I had only one baby I would complain long and hard to anyone who would listen about how going away for the weekend was like putting up and taking down a fucking circus. Now I have two, the monumental amount of shite we need when we go away beggars belief. We arrive, set everything up, have a cup of tea, then it's time to pack everything away and go home again. But, listen to me: I do not overpack. If anything, I under pack. I never used to take any toys, for example. Other people turn up for the weekend with great laundry bags full of toys, which Kitty has to then steal like a latter-day Artful Dodger. 

My husband looks at the bags and bags of stuff in the hall waiting to be stuffed into the boot of the car and always says "God what a lot of stuff". He doesn't question it, because he values his life, but he boggles at it all the same. I know he is thinking: "If I had married someone more relaxed she would pack less stuff and then we could go on the train." 

And sometimes I think that, too. But I look at our things and I know that there is nothing in any of these meticulously sourced and packed bags that we can do without. Without the Dream Tubes Kitty will fall out of the single bed that she will be sleeping in. Without the packet of soup pasta, Sam will not be able to have tea on Sunday night. Without his Lamaze Elephant that plays tunes when you squeeze the hand, Sam will be sad. Without his bath chair, Sam will not have a nice bath, which is a vitally fun twenty minutes in his day. Without Kitty's new travel dollshouse she will be bored and demand to watch TV and show me up in front of our hosts. And so on. It's enough to drive you to drink, let alone anything stronger.

People look at the amount of crap you have in your car when you go away with two small kids and they laugh and sneer and say "In my day we didn't take that much stuff" or "where's the kitchen sink ha ha" or whatever and they mostly say it because they have forgotten or never experienced what it is like to travel with small children. Or they never had to do the packing in the first place. Or they have never had to deal with the consequences of having not packed enough formula, or the correct stuffed toy or the DVD wallet or the iPad charger. And no-one else can do it for you, only you know what you need and where it is. And if you did happen to have someone else in your life who could do that kind of stuff for you, well, you can't put a price on that kind of service. 

I know how my husband would do it if he was packing for everyone: he would take nothing. A handful of nappies, maybe, and Kitty's toothbrush. He does this when he takes Kitty to the park - just hoofs it only taking things he can fit into his pockets. Everything, he reckons, can be begged or borrowed off other people or bought from a shop. If he runs into trouble he just clutches the upper arm of the nearest woman and hopes she will sort it out (she will, because that's what we're like). 

This attitude makes me feel perfectly sick to my stomach. What, just rely on borrowing shit off other people? Rely on there being a shop that has the thing that you need? What an almighty stress. I have, in fact, a few times been caught short when I have been out with my children - mostly lacking suncream, but once also nappies. It is true that other people fall over themselves to help. And whenever I am approached by someone and asked for a spare nappy or suncream or anything, I hand over fistfuls, shrieking lies like "Oh my God that happens to me ALL THE TIME" so that the borrower won't feel inadequate.  

But the fact is that I cannot really imagine anything worse than flimsying about having to constantly beg things off other people for my kids. I forgot spare pyjamas for Kitty at my sister's house the other weekend and she donated an old pair of her youngest's and, although she's my sister and everything and I'm sure I've helped her out of a tight spot in the past, still - it made me feel like a gypsy. No wait, that's not fair to gypsies. It made me feel like some stupid fucking hippy idiot who naffs about forgetting everything and saying pathetic things like "Oh it'll be fine", meaning "I will just take advantage of more organised people who spent 3 days packing while I wafted about my house vaguely, gossiping on the phone."

Anyway *wipes rabid foam off chin* so what I mean by all this is that don't sit about wondering if cooking is less of a hassle for other people - or if other people are doing quite so much fucking washing up. It isn't and they are.

Washing up is a major contributing factor, often, to my not eating dinner when my husband is out. I don't need to worry about him so I can just drink a huge glass of Chardonnay, eat a handful of pistachios and then spoon Nutella directly into my gob from the jar until I feel sick & then take whatever non-prescription, (or prescription, if I am lucky), sedatives I can find lurking in my bathroom cabinet in order to pass out.

But last night, despite being tired and overwrought, (because who the fuck isn't), I actually made myself a small curry for dinner, using up an alarming collection of ancient things in the fridge and it was terrific, thanks to a clutch of store cupboard essentials.

Because sometimes just surviving gets boring. It isn't enough. You have to try to drive yourself on and make the best of things, using whatever dodgy bits and bobs you can lay your hands on.

Dirty curry, for Nigella Lawson

3/4 pack chicken thigh fillets, 3 days past sell by date (don't tell my husband)
10 day old purple sprouting broccoli, chopped up
1 tsp dried chilli flakes
2tbsp light soy sauce
leftover peas from toddler's dinner
200ml chicken stock, open for 1 week
1 small can bamboo shoots, 3 months past sell by date
1 70m can organic coconut cream
1/2 tsp chinese five spice
1 small, quite rubbery garlic clove, grated
1 nest of vermicelli noodles, if you feel like it


1 Wash chicken thoroughly, ignoring any funny smell, chop or snip into bite-sized pieces and fry off for a good 10 minutes in some groundnut oil. Google the symptoms of salmonella

2 Add broccoli, peas, chilli flakes, chinese five spice and grated garlic and fry on a low-medium flame for 5 minutes

3 Add chicken stock, coconut cream and soy, allow this to simmer together for 10-15 minutes

4 Steep the noodles in boiling water for 3 minutes and then drain and add to the curry for 5 minutes.






Friday, 15 November 2013

Chocolate ganache




Esther Walker is unwell. It doesn't have the same ring to it, I know - but it's true. I've had bronchitis. Okay not actually confirmed bronchitis, but that's what I've been saying. In fact it was just a non-specific chest infection but when I say that it sounds like there's something wrong with my bosoms. I reckon it was pneumonia, just between you and me. I don't know how much worse you'd have to feel than I felt for it to be pneumonia. I've had a pain, you see, a pain in my lungs.

Anyway it's taken ages to get better. Usually you get the antibiotics and 24 hours later you're springing about going shopping. But I went to bed on Sunday night and only really got out of bed again on Thursday morning. It was enjoyable in a way - an uncomplicated, straightforward illness: chills, fever, head-to-toe aches, sweats, pain in the chest, dizziness, delirium, all of that. Not just tired, fed-up, run-down, burnt-out. Actually like fucking dying.

I lay in bed inert and unresponsive as other people looked after my children. Occasionally I would try to focus my hot, blurred eyes on my phone and would wonder why no-one was asking me any questions, how life in the house was carrying on quite so merrily without me. But I didn't get too upset about it, just slipped back into a semi-coma gratefully.

And what I've got for you now I'm back from the dead is a thing that's going to annoy you because I know you don't want me to write about cakes and sweeties anymore. But the thing is that those are the NEW things that I am cooking.

I am indeed cooking savoury things like a motherfucker at the moment, but it's all for Sam who has in the last three weeks started raging through food like a starving wolf.

I always used to find people who talked about how much their children (usually their sons) ate quite annoying, as I sat in front of Kitty coaxing her for hours to eat one more tiny weeny thingy of lamb stew. "Oh was Kitty fussy? We're lucky," they would say. "He just ate everything from the start." And they say "lucky" but what they meant was "it's because we're such fantastic parents". I mean, that's probably what they meant. THEY SAID IT WITH THEIR EYES.

But now we all stand about and marvel at the food disappearing into Sam's gob. It's like a sideshow at a circus. Watch the enormous monster baby eat! Down goes a massive spoonful, and another, and another, and another! Like a waste disposal unit. I have decided that in order to fit it all in, the first bit of food must start to be digested and be making its was out of his tummy before he's finished the bowl of whatever.

But it's nothing I've done, you understand? Just like it was nothing I did that made Kitty able to exist for weeks at a time on nothing but air, sunlight and three bottles of milk a day. And it's not because he's a boy, because I know plenty of baby boys who hardly eat anything - because they don't need to right now. Because they'll do more growing later, thanks.

It's just because Sam is massive and getting massiver by the day - he's six months old and wearing Kitty's old blue dungarees that she wore when she was over a year - and he will probably go on to be massiver. (Or maybe he will halt at five feet nine inches when he is twelve years old.)

People always act like it's such a bloody marvellous thing to have a big baby who will eat the world and that having some strapping six footer son is just the gold standard. Whatever Sam ends up being is fine by me, but I don't mind men under six foot. My husband is five feet nine inches tall and I think he is the perfect height. I can look him in the eye. When we embrace I don't end up with my head under his armpit. At parties when I want to say something mean about someone I don't have to climb a ladder to whisper it in his ear. He doesn't constantly bump his head on things and complain about legroom on airplanes.

My point is that a consequence of Sam eating so much right now is that getting together enough food for him is an issue. (Don't get me started on clothes!) If Kitty's hungry I can make her a make her a sandwich. If Sam is hungry he needs something to be cooked and blended. HE WON'T EAT THOSE STUPID ELLA'S POUCHES. Every time I turn around it's time to make another enormous stew, or enough cheese sauce for 8 pots of macaroni cheese. I think of life with Sam when he is a teenager (Insha'Allah) and really hungry and see entire loaves of bread and pints of milk disappearing in minutes before my eyes.

But I can't think that you are interested in my recipe for lentil puree. And the new thing I made recently, as I slowly crept out of my bronchial hell, was a chocolate ganache.

I made one of these before and it wasn't very good. But I have subsequently realised that the recipe was a bummer. So I made it again on the instruction of Paul Hollywood himself (I texted a question into a radio show! I KNOW!!) and it came out just absolutely perfect.

So this is what you do. To cover 12 fairy cakes you need:

100g best chocolate (for kids, milk chocolate probably best - Waitrose do one called Menier, very nice)
100ml double cream
1 knob of butter

(NB - chocolate ganache is always just equal quantities of chocolate and cream - mls to grams.)

1 Chop the chocolate into reasonably small bits and put in a bowl.

2 Put the cream in a small saucepan and heat until it is nearly boiling. Pour over the chocolate and stir until the chocolate has melted. This takes a while, you need to stir all the time. You can bung it in the microwave for a few seconds towards the end if the chocolate has really stopped melting in. Don't whisk it!! Because you will get unattractive bubbles, as I did.

3 When it has all melted in, add a knob of butter, for sheen.

4 Pour over your fairy cakes and decorate. This doesn't actually set firm, like an icing, it's always a bit gooey and sticky. And hurrah for that.

Have a great weekend.

Love
Esther x

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Lamb meatballs stuffed with cheese




I am not the sort of mother who feels sorry for people who don't have children. Not even in my most smug moments (literally, only fleeting moments) do I think "People without kids are missing out!" or "People without kids must be so sad".

I think, quite honestly, if I hadn't had kids I would have been alright. I would have done something else, been someone else. I would have bred Shar-Peis or collected guns or become a foreign correspondent or something else equally child-unfriendly. But it would have been alright. I wouldn't have been sad. I would have Christmassed in Barbados and spent Sunday mornings browsing in foreign antiques markets. I would cook more elaborately. I would read a lot of books.

But there is one area in which my heart does go out to the childless and it is this: they have to pretend, especially women, to like children they are not related to. They either have to pretend to like them, or self-defensively announce loudly that they are not "crazy" about kids or they are "bad" with kids or turn it around and claim that kids don't like THEM. (It's not me, it's you.)

The plain fact is that it is hard to immediately take to strange children. Your own are fine. Your nieces and nephews are delightful. But other kids? Well, they're just... whatever, really. Not repulsive or anything. (Although sometimes yes, totally repulsive) But mostly you just feel... nothing.

Unless you get to know them of course. Any child, once you get to know it, becomes the world's most precious thing. But unless you see each other reasonably often, it's hard to go wild about them.

This is a perfectly okay attitude to have if you already have children. The other day a friend whom I was supposed to be seeing for coffee asked at the last minute if she could bring both her kids. Both of mine would be occupied elsewhere. "No," I said, guiltlessly. "Let's do it another time."And her children are perfectly nice. Any other time, when I also had my kids, they would be welcome at my house to smash the place up - we would all put funny hats on and sing songs and have a wicked time - but spend time with her kids, on one of my kid-free mornings? No. Unthinkable. Never.

But you can't say that if you haven't got kids because people go hmmmmm and think Oh, she doesn't like children. Like one of the Witches in Roald Dahl. And it's not that, s/he just doesn't really like children she doesn't know. She doesn't hate them!! Just doesn't really want to socialise with them. They operate at such an odd tempo, do little kids, and unless you are tuned to it, it can seem bizarre.

It's all the interrupting that the childless can't cope with. They probably think you shouldn't let your children interrupt you, that Kiddo ought to just sit in a corner eating PVA glue while you gossip on for 3 hours about someone's hideous new kitchen extension. They think you, the mother, ought to turn and say NOT NOW I AM TALKING.

Or, worse, they do that thing where they reach over to stop the hand of an eight month old who is banging a spoon on a table, because they believe that you are not stopping the child from making this awful noise because you are blinded by love or helplessly out of control.

(The fact is that there is so little joy and light in an 8 month-old's life - can't speak, can't move, probably teething - that why shouldn't the poor little bugger have a bit of fun banging a spoon about?)

Before I had children, all those utterly bizarre things kids do used to do my head in and I thought I didn't like kids, but now I know that 1) you don't really like kids you don't know and 2) I didn't understand them.

Now I don't even notice when I am interrupted. In fact these days I am quite grateful for it - I talk so much and so fast that I can really wear myself out if left to rattle on unchecked.

And anyway I am usually just sitting in my kitchen with Becky B - in the middle of saying something scandalous - and I will be dragged hither to clear up a spill and she will be dragged thither to look at a Peppa Pig rocket and when this strange little ballet brings us back to within shouting distance of each other, we pick up where we left off. That's just how it is. We don't care. We usually manage to cover quite a lot of ground that way.

But when you don't have kids you don't GET to not want to be with them. People act like it's "good" for the childless to spend time with their own ratbag kids to "get practice". Me? I never expect anyone to want to spend time with my kids if they haven't got their own. Why would they? Moreover, why would I? If I am going to see a friend who hasn't got children I want to sit about in clean, fashionable (?!?!?!) clothes drinking alcohol and talking, uninterrupted, about that hideous kitchen extension.

Which brings me rather abruptly to lamb meatballs. Things have been a bit hair-raising round here the last few weeks. One of those times in life when eating, let alone cooking, sort of goes out of the window. We've been getting a lot of takeaway or having things that I can cook from memory, which only require 1 stale cabbage, some nutmeg and pre-grated Cheddar (strength 2).

But the other night, despite feeling pretty sorry for myself, I did have the chutzpah to conjure up a BRAND NEW THING, which are these cheese-stuffed meatballs. Not as hard as they sound and actually really unusual and delicious, sort of half-Greek, half-Indian - like a really beautiful supermodel.

So here we go, this would serve 4 people with sides.

500g best lamb mince
1 small onion, roughly chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 small bunch coriander
1/4 tsp fennel seeds
1/4 tsp coriander seeds
1/4 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp fenugreek seeds (leave these out if you don't have them)
1/2 small pack of Feta cheese
salt & pepper
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 pint chicken stock
1 large handful medium Matzoh meal
1 egg
groundnut oil for frying

1 Put the onion, garlic, 1/2 the bunch of coriander and all the spices into a whizzer and whizz. Don't clean the blender out.

2 Add these to your lamb mince and smoosh around with your hands for a bit. Then throw over the matzoh and the egg and a large pinch of salt and smoosh about more to combine. Try not to think about how cute lambs are.

3 Put a non-stick pan on over a medium heat with some oil in it and while this is heating up start shaping your meatballs in the usual way but put in a pinch of feta cheese - about the size of a small marble, and pack the mince around it. You will discover the best way of doing this by trial and error - by the third meatball you'll have nailed it. It is easiest to work with mince if you have wet or damp hands.

4 Fry off the meatballs for about 15 minutes, turning so they are nice and crunchy on the outside. Keep the heat at a medium, at no point out blue smoke to be anywhere in your kitchen.

5 While these are browning, whizz your tin of tomatoes in your dirty whizzer, then scrape it all out into a casserole dish or any pan with deep-ish sides. Add your stock and a large pinch of salt and about ten turns of the pepper grinder, stir and bring this to a simmer.

6 Add in your meatballs as they seem browned on all sides (some may open up to reveal the cheese within, don't worry about this) and cook the whole lot on a simmer for about 45 minutes until the tomatoey sauce seems to have reduced and thickened. Tinned tomatoes are vile and it's only by cooking them and reducing them that you can turn them into anything edible.

7 Sprinkle over with fresh coriander and eat at dinnertime after the little weasels have gone to bed and you finally get to finish a bloody sentence.





Sunday, 20 October 2013

Cupcakes with buttercream icing




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You make buttercream like this:

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

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

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






Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Passionfruit tartlets





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Passionfruit tartlets

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

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

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

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

4 Allow the shells to cool in the tin.

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

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

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Dundee cake




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

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

HELLOOOO FULHAAAAAAAM!

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

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

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

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

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

Dundee cake

Pre-heat your oven to 150C. 

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

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

1 Cream the butter and the sugar together.

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

3 Fold in the flour with a metal spoon.

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

5 Put this into your appropriately-sized tin.

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

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

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






Friday, 27 September 2013

Oat and raisin cookies




I occasionally get emails from people asking me for childcare advice - normally about sleeping and eating (what else is there, after all?) - and sometimes these emails are from people who I assume have all the answers about kids already: doctors and teachers, basically.

One was an obstetrician worried about what her under-1 was eating. And I thought YOU DELIVER BABIES surely they are just not a subject you need help with. But she did. And she said "I just needed to hear someone else say it." I get that a lot. "I just needed to hear someone else say it," they say when I tell them to stop eating if they want to be thin, or stop rocking their kid to sleep or to stop breastfeeding if it's making them suicidal.

Yesterday I needed to hear someone else say "You need to do controlled crying with Sam." And my heart sank - right into my socks. But I knew they were right.

Controlled crying is the worst thing you have to do as a parent, I think. Is there anything else? MMmm, no. It is absolutely horrible. And it only looks and feels right and sensible from a distance. It never feels anything other than the most horrific, inhuman crazy reckless selfish evil thing you've ever done when you're actually doing it. There are fewer darker places to be, as a parent, then listening to your child cry and doing nothing about it.

I mean, come on! To leave your child fussing, or wailing or even fucking screeching the house down? Well that's just a thing for social services surely? You're no better than Baby P's mother! The parent of that poor Polish boy who starved to death! YOU ARE A MONSTER! These thoughts loom large in the small hours.

But there comes a point when it is time to get a grip and have some perspective. And I think that controlled crying is in fact a thing that you are doing to yourself, not something you are doing to your child.

Very few parents go for controlled crying as Option 1. When I had to do it with Kitty it was only after days and days of trying other things. And with Sam I have spent the last three months trying everything else when he wakes at 5am: patting, stroking, popping in a dummy, taking him in bed with me - all that. And he doesn't want it, it makes it worse. If all I had to do with him was hop into bed with him at 5am every morning and give him a cuddle and he would fall back to sleep until 7am I would do it. Happily! But it doesn't work. Neither does the dummy. He just spits it out half an hour later.

And I've been fretting and fretting and fretting about it for weeks. What to do? What to do? Then yesterday someone said "Just let him cry."

And I went :(((((((

But this morning as the clocked ticked over to 0500 and Sam began his dawn chorus of snuffling and whimpering and going "ehhr ehhr ehhr ehhr ehhr" which turned to "waaa waa waa waaa" I got out of bed, taking a watch with me, shut the door on my husband, shut Kitty's door and went up to the nursery. I straightened Sam in his cot, as he was headbutting the sides, gave him back his muzzy thing, gave him a pat then went out to sit on the stairs.

A watch is completely vital when you are doing controlled crying. With nothing to mark time it feels like they have been crying for hours, days, YEARS. In reality I let Sam wail and fret for 1min 30secs, then went back in to give him another pat. Then I went outside and left him again for just under 4 minutes. Then he went quiet again and started up for just under 2 minutes. Then he went completely quiet and I went back downstairs and got into bed and didn't hear from him again until 7.20am. The whole thing had taken 15 minutes.

As I sat and listened to Sam wailing I noticed a thing about his cry that helped me whenever I had to do it with Kitty: he didn't really mean it. Or rather, the cry didn't mean the thing I feared it meant. What I fear it means is: "I want my dummy" - and am then baffled when he spits it out half an hour later.

But I realise now when he is wailing at that time in the morning he is saying "I don't understand why I am awake. I don't want to be awake. I want to be asleep but I can't really get back to sleep so I am going to just go WAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH until I pass ou..." This is why the dummy doesn't help (because he doesn't fall asleep with a dummy) and why patting doesn't help (get the fuck off me) and taking him into bed doesn't help (what are you doing?!?!?! put me back in bed!!!)

Anyway that is my story and I am sticking to it. At least I've got a plan, now - once you've done controlled crying once and it has worked and they wake up the next morning alive and well and give you a huge gummy smile, it's never as bad again. And with any luck quite soon no-one will have to listen to me going on about how fucking tired I am anymore.

Continuing the theme of baking for Kitty's nursery bake sale day, yesterday we made some oat and raisin cookies (a classic).

They worked very well and were very simple and I recommend them to you.

Oat and raisin cookies
Makes 12

1 egg
50g butter
50g sugar
50g plain flour
1tsp baking powder
1tsp ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon Golden Syrup or runny honey
80g rolled oats (like Scots Porage Oats)
50g raisins

Preheat your oven to 170C

1 Grease a baking sheet

2 Cream together the butter and sugar then beat in the egg, then the golden syrup or honey.

3 In another bowl mix together the
- flour
- cinnamon
- baking powder
- oats
- raisins

then add to your butter mixture.

4 To make a cookie, blob a teaspoonful on the baking sheet then flatten down a bit as best you can as it will spread out a bit on cooking but not lots. If you just put a blob on the sheet you will get a sort of rock cake.

The mixture is very rubbly and sticky so manipulating it can be problematic. I think there is a thing you can do with flattening it with a wet spatula?

Leave some space between cookies as they will spread out a bit on cooking. You may have to cook them in two batches.

5 Bake for about 8 - 10 minutes then leave to cool on a wire rack. They ought to be be bendy when they come out of the oven.

It goes without saying you can add anything else you like to these to make them super-tasty: chopped orange peel, hazelnuts, chocolate chips: wevs, man.


Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Rice Krispie treats




So there I was again on a Thursday afternoon doing some baking for the nursery cake sale, so sleep-starved that I actually felt really awake, in the same way that you get incredibly hot and fling off all your clothes just before you die from hypothermia.

Shall I tell you what happened the night before? It's a really funny story. Okay it's not - but those of you with children will feel better that you are not the only one having a shit time and those of you with no kids will feel extra smart and terrific about your life choices. 

So both Kitty AND Sam are ill with the same cold - Sam is alright but Kitty's has gone a bit nasty with a fruity cough and the occasional low-grade fever. Kitty has been falling asleep on the sofa at about 2.30pm these days and so she doesn't go to bed until 8.30pm. Not ideal but never mind. So we dinged about until 8pm then she went to bed. She seemed happy despite her cough. 

I trotted downstairs to catch up on Bake-Off and at 9.15pm Kitty sat up in bed and started wailing. Then coughing. I went upstairs to see her and she puked down herself and down me (exlcusively, I noticed, phlegm and grossness she has been swallowing for the last fortnight) and started crying. And crying. And CRYING. 

I carried her downstairs to a little bathroom and ran a hot shower with some Olbas Oil in it and sat with her in the steam. She was still weeping and weeping, wailing that she wanted to go back to bed. Coughing and gagging. After ten minutes I took her back upstairs going "shh shh shh!' terrified she would wake up Sam. I changed her out of her pukey stuff and put her back in her cot. But she kept on crying. She seemed to be nodding off but then something was stopping her. Snotty nose? Headache from the bang on her head she took that morning falling off her scooter?

She eventually fell asleep whimpering to herself. I wrote the rest of the evening off and went to bed myself. Then at 11pm she woke up really crying. Not coughing just crying. It's fucking earache I thought. Must be. She's never had earache before. Oh god - have to go to the doctor, get antibiotics - how am I going to get her to take them??

Giles then arrived back from some dinner or other. We settled her in our bed, tried to get some Calpol down her - (for-GET it) - and then just waited grimly for about 45 minutes until she eventually slipped into unconsciousness at about 1am, spreadeagled across my side of the bed. 

So off I went to sleep in Sam's room. I passed out at about 1.30am and was then woken up by Sam at 0400 suffling and snotting around. I lay there listening to him for an hour, waiting for him to put himself back to sleep, then got up, wiped his nose and popped a dummy in (why? why do I think that is going to help?) it didn't. He got worse, wailed harder. I took him into bed with me. WORSE. 

Fuck this, I thought. Fucking fuck this. I don't hate my children, I don't hate being a mother, (though some people think I do), but I hate THIS. The discombobulation, the anxiety, the not knowing what to do, the slight terror of how you are going to deal with tomorrow on no sleep.

Some parents, like Giles, love it when his kids need him in the night. He gets to cuddle them in bed, which is a rare treat as they sleep in their own rooms - and he gets to make the ultimate sacrifice for them: sleep. My husband has often sacrificed sleep for far less noble causes - so why not his children? 

I do not feel this way. I've got a bit of a thing about sleep. My feeling is only powerfully that I cannot stand seeing them suffer. I wish they were old enough that they could tell me where it hurts and so that I could dose them properly with decongestants - rather than fannying about with Vicks and vaporisers and humidifiers and Nurofen - so that no-one has to have an awful time.

It's the inconsolable crying I can't take. Puke and shit and having to sleep in the same bed as my kids and being kicked - and even having to get up in the night I don't mind. But the wailing on and on, not responding to any sort of patting or stroking or comfort. That breaks me. 

Anyway at about 0530 completely out of ideas, I put Sam back in his bed, tucked him in, gave him his muzzy thing, turned on his tinkly music box and left the room to sit on the stairs. He was asleep in eight seconds. He was literally just waiting for me to fuck off out of his room. 

I simply couldn't face going back into the nursery and there was no room for me in my bed so I climbed into Kitty's cotbed, pulled the toddler-sized duvet over me and shivered there for an hour and a half until it was time to get up and feed Sam. 

Kitty slept through, luxuriously, under my Super King-sized Hungarian Goosedown duvet and woke up fine, even went off merrily to nursery, no hint of earache or a headache or anything. Sam, needless to say, grinned like a massive goon when I got him up, like always. 

During the day, even though I had a couple of chances at naps, I just couldn't do it, couldn't nod off. It happens a lot when you've been kept awake. You sort of forget how to fall asleep. I worry, you see. I worry I'm never going to sleep again. I worry that the next night will be the same as last night. It is very hard when you are tired and confused not to despair. 

So I thought I would cheer myself up by making Rice Krispie treats for Kitty's nursery Friday bake sale. I had been looking forward to doing these for a while. They would be easy, I told myself, they would look terrific with sparkles all over them and mini smarties and tiny marshmallow and all sorts. 

In the end I did them in a classically slapdash way. I decided that actual quantities of chocolate, golden syrup and butter for the chocolate sauce thing didn't matter. But I think they might because my sauce went all grainy and gross  (which is not, I don't think, the same as "splitting" but looks equally unappealing). 

I lost heart slightly at this stage and ditched my plans for glitter and mini smarties. I just dumped a lot of raisins in and mini marshmallows, stirred it round while feeling a bit despondent that I literally cannot make something that primary-school aged children make. I cannot even cook something that requires almost NO cooking. I despaired. Again. 

I tipped the whole lot out into a loaf tin and shoved it in the fridge. Then I took it out two hours later and cut it up into bits and it was FUCKING AMAZING!!!!!!!

So this is how I did it:

For the sauce

1 bar Menier milk cooking chocolate 
300g Cadbury's milk chocolate
a slab of butter - about 50g
2 tablespoons of golden syrup

3 handfuls Rice Krispies
1 handful raisins
1 handful mini marshmallows

and any extra things you might like

1 Put a heatproof bowl over a pan of cold water then put it on your smallest burner set at the lowest heat. The bottom of the bowl must not touch the water. 

2 Break up the chocolate and put it in the bowl, followed by the butter and the syrup. Then leave it
there to melt, give it a stir as it looks mostly melted in to help things along, but otherwise leave it alone. Do not freak out if it goes a bit grainy. 

3 Into the melted chocolate pour the Rice Krispies and raisins. Allow the chocolate to cool to lukewarm (though it should not be especially hot anyway) before adding the mini marshmallows as you don't want the marshmallows to melt. 

4 Line a loaf tin with a double layer of cling film so you can get the stuff out later and then pour in your chocolate mixture, press down all over the top with a spatula and stick in the fridge for 2 hours. 

You can decorate these before they go into the fridge with glitter or mini Smarties, or anything you like really. Diazepam, 5mg?





Thursday, 12 September 2013

Jam tarts




I often wonder if there might not be a few teeny tiny totally major flaws in the design of human beings. Like a blueprint that someone has dripped coffee on before anyone notices and it goes to be made up in the factory and comes out all wrong.

Like pregnancy. Stupid! Dangerous! Not modern! I have often thought how great it would be if the whole thing were to be outsourced to Apple. You could download your iBaby from the iCloud and you could set the side switch to mute.

And toddlers. Why are they so annoying? It is not in their best interests. It is not in anyone's interest. Why are they like that? I know they are experiencing some brain thing with the hormones and this and that and wevs... but WHY does this miraculous brain-change have to result in them not putting their shoes on? Or refusing to put a plaster on a suppurating foot-cut? Or breaking everything in sight? Or constantly tripping over?

(About six years ago a woman I know said of her 3 year old "She's constantly falling over! I just want to scream 'Stop fucking tripping over!'" I was shocked and thought she was a bad person for thinking this. I don't any more.)

And the children-and-sleeping thing. Before you have a baby you know you're going to be tired - you're not an idiot. But you say to each other "it'll be okay we will cope". And then it happens and you're just open-mouthed and demented, one-eyed and bonkers with fatigue. And I consider my children to be good sleepers! But all it takes is for Kitty to decide to have a bad dream and Sam to have a rocky night, for whatever mysterious baby reason, and it's a proper nuit blanche, which is French for fucking nightmare (yes I know it doesn't really mean that).

When I consider how many people have children who do not sleep well and how many of those people have to go to work in the morning it really is a miracle that the entire world doesn't just grind to a halt in a pile-up of errors because everyone is so flipping wired out on coffee, fags and sugar because their bloody kids kept them awake from 0430.

No-one, as my sister says, gets away with it. You can have all the help you possibly want, can possibly afford, but unless you have your kids sleeping out of earshot and you've got a live-in nanny who your babies call for if they are sick or frightened, when your kids wake up in the night, it's on you.

It's one thing if you don't work or aren't working much when your children are small, but what if you are up with your kids at night and then have to fucking get up and get on the tube and go to work? It's a miracle that trains even turn up, that the financial markets don't collapse in on themselves, that surgeons don't remove MORE wrong limbs, that banks don't make more errors in our favour.

I thought this as I stood at the kitchen counter the other day at about 1.20pm or thereabouts, having been awake since 0400 with Sam. It was my fault - I gave him insufficient naps during the day so by 6pm he was utterly exhausted and passed out rather than fell asleep, which meant he woke up with a jerk at 8pm, wailing and confused, and I was too lazy to let him fret himself back to sleep so I popped a dummy in. And the night went downhill from there. Anyway it taught me a lesson.

So I stood in my kitchen, having been unable to use my nap window to nap because a very noisy car alarm went off just as I was drifting off and you only get one shot at these things. I was dazed.

It being a Thursday (Friday being cake sale day at the nursery) I set about making jam tarts. Jam tarts are simple and a very good thing to do for bake sales. Despite only needing a hot oven and opposable thumbs for this, I managed to break two tarts and the rest of them look like Kitty made them, although she didn't (although this is what I will say to excuse their appearance). I was just cross-eyed with tiredness and made a mess of them. Imagine if I worked at Air Traffic Control?

Still, the thing about jam tarts is that they look quite sweet if they're a bit bashed-up. And they still taste the same, especially if you're eating one accompanied by a strong cup of coffee and a ciggie.

Jam tarts
Makes 12 (with a lot of breakages) with jam and pastry leftover

1 pack sweet shortcrust pastry from Jus-Roll (you can make your own but... fuck...)
1 jar Tiptree seedless raspberry jam. I think it is reasonably important to use nice jam for this seeing as it's such a boondoggle pisstake thing to make you might as well push the boat out when it comes to the main ingredient.
1 egg for glazing (not essential if you just can't be bothered)
12-hole fairy cake tin

pre-heat your oven to 180

1 Grease your baking tin

2 Dust your worksurface and roll out the pastry

3 Cut out discs with a pastry-cutter - mine was 3in across, which is about as small as you can go

4 Plop the discs into the cake tin holes and put a teaspoon of jam into each little cup

5 Beat the egg and brush a little around the top of the pastry cups - this is not essential

6 Bake for 10-12 mins

A note: these are a nightmare to get out of the tin when they are hot so leave them to cool down properly before you attempt it, or they will just crumble to bits and you might find yourself bursting into tears and throwing the spatula across the kitchen and then screaming at your husband.







p.s. I must apologies here to Katharine Sooke nee Begg, who I saw at an NPG party the other day and she was pregnant and I was so annoying and shouty and asking her about when she was having it and where and wasn't the bump huge and oh my gard and all that annoying stuff that drove me mental during my pregnancies. I wasn't even drunk!!!!! Anyway she claims to be an occasional reader of this blog so I thought I'd say sorry here. Sorry.


Monday, 9 September 2013

Butternut squash "cake"




Kitty has started at nursery. Finally!!! It's not just the relief of being able to pack her off every morning to make the most enormous mess that someone else has to clear up, it's the re-plugging back into society that, for me, is the biggest weight off my mind.

When you have a small child who is NEET - not in education, employment or training - you can feel a bit like you've slipped through the cracks of society a bit. Nobody knows or cares where you are, no-one expects you to show up anywhere. There's no signing in or joining in necessary.

You don't really have a child when your child is really small, more like a very strange pet. And it's very easy to look in despair and dismay at the range of uninspiring activities on offer locally and fail at the first, second and third hurdle of making friends and, after a short time, to disappear.

But when they go to nursery - aha!! School. Lunchboxes. Pegs. Storytime. Playgrounds. Suddenly it's all familiar again. I can do this, I know this. I am now "Kitty's Mummy" - it's brilliant. Your child ceases to be this sort of blob and starts to be a person with a nametag and a personality that others want to talk to you about.

The first days that Kitty was at nursery I would automatically stop talking about her after a few sentences, because you are so used to people not giving a flying shit about what she's like or what she's scared of, or not scared of and so on. But the people who work at the nursery kept saying "go on, yes, and what else?"

And so I talked and talked and talked and talked about what she was like and the teacher's eyes didn't glaze over and she didn't interrupt. It was amazing.

I had assumed that Kitty, being a robust and outgoing sort, would be shoving me out of the door every morning, but in fact for the first few days she was reasonably droopy and needed a lot of coaxing during the second part of the morning (which does seem rather long in fact - 0930 - 1300??). But that was last week. Today I left her at 0945, and went home to do that thing with Sam where you hold a baby and shift your weight from foot to foot, staring out of the window, until it feels like your back is going to give out. I was anxiously holding my phone, waiting for the "she's crying so hard she's been sick" phonecall and none came. I went to get her at 12.50 and she saw me and ran to me and said "Oh Mummy I've missed you so much!" (wtf? who taught her to say THAT?) she was smiling suspiciously widely. Then she went to hide in the teepee and wouldn't come out to go home. I had to bribe her hard with Smarties.

Anyway so I'm absolutely delighted.

They also have a bake sale every Friday at the end of the morning, which I am totally delirious about. Not so that I can be some ghastly goody two-shoes and show everyone else up by making something every week (... or is it...) but because I am not doing very much new savoury cooking at the moment and we really do not in this house need any cakes or biscuits or sweeties hanging about because some of us are still packing quite a lot of babyweight.

But this is the most terrific excuse to make a lot of biscuity nursery treats and then get them out of the house so that they can bloody make someone else fat. I have gone mad and ordered 2kgs of icing sugar, extra fairy cake cases, food colouring and sweet shortcrust pastry in honour of this. I am, as you might be able to tell, excited.

Before we embark on that particular journey, though, I do have this savoury thing to tell you about, which is a thing of my very own invention, which I'm very pleased with.

I absolutely love a butternut squash lasagne I found in P-Mid's Celebrate a few months ago but I don't want to eat a lot of pasta because of the aforementioned babyweight. So I wanted to do it without the lasagne sheets.

"Use the butternut squash in slices in place of the pasta" said my husband, although I will pretend to everyone it was my idea.

Anyway so what you do is make a sort of butternut squash, spinach and cheese layered cake thing. It is brilliant and delicious and I love it.

Here is how

Esther's butternut squash "cake"
For two easily, with leftovers

1 butternut squash
10 sage leaves
1 small onion
200g (raw weight) of baby spinach
flour, butter and milk for a white sauce
a large handful of whatever assorted cheeses you have in your fridge
salt and pepper
mild olive oil

Set your oven to 180C

1 Peel and slice your butternut squash into rounds or half-moons of the thickness of a £1 coin (have a quick look at a coin because you think it's thicker than it is). Slice up the onion into similarly elegant rounds.

2 Arrange the squash and the onion on a baking sheet, drizzle with quite a lot of oil - about 5 tbs I'd say, then season with salt and pepper and shove in the oven for 30 mins.

3 Now source from somewhere a dish in which to cook this. I used a 7in cake tin from John Lewis with a loose bottom, but I doubt you have one of those. Have a poke about in your cupboards for something suitable.

4 Cook or steam your spinach whichever way you know how.

5 Make your white sauce. If you don't know how to make a white sauce, please refer to the "How to make a white sauce" section of this blog. There's no shame in not knowing how.

You want a very stiff, thick white sauce, so when you make your roux, have it quite dry. Go easy on the milk. Shove in a lot of cheese. You want in total only about 300 ml of white sauce. But this is not an exact thing so don't worry too much - the important thing is that the sauce is thick and reasonably stiff so that when you slice your "cake" is doesn't just run out everywhere.

Add your cheese to the white sauce and muddle it round until it melts. This can take a while.

6 Assemble your cake the most practical way you can see how: layer of squash (add in with the squash all the onion and sage bits), layer of spinach, layer of cheese, robustly seasoning between layers - ideally you finish up with a layer of cheese sauce uppermost but this is MY recipe and I say, don't worry too much.

7 Put the whole thing back in the oven for about 25 mins at 180. If you HAVE used a cake tin with a loose base, put it on a baking sheet or in a tray to go in the oven because it will leak.

This is as rich and filling as a lasagne so a little goes a long way. Eat with a cold, sharp cucumber salad or something like that. 

Monday, 2 September 2013

Meatloaf




Hi how was your summer?

Annoying question. As if we're American high school teenagers returning from 6 week sojourns to Cape Cod, or hilarious hi-jinx stints working at a beach bar in Florida.

How was my summer? I had a toddler and a newborn and my part-time nanny went on holiday for 2 months. HOW DO YOU THINK IT WAS.

Actually I made a stunning discovery as I walked with Sam round and round the deck of a billionaire's yacht in Sardinia in mid-August (long story): successful women wear sportswear during the day and black when they go out in the evening.

I had been observing the billionaire's wife, who wore sportswear during the day and black - and only black - in the evenings. I asked her what she would be wearing this autumn (as I pulled my ancient TopShop orange sundress over my massive sweaty escaping bosom) and she said "mostly black. I seem to have about a hundred black sweaters". And I thought, I bet you do.

So I thought about it more and realised that whenever I admire what some woman or other is wearing, she's almost always wearing head to toe black. I feel like I shouldn't do this because it's too EASY and it's "BORING". I think this because Anna Wintour famously hates black and I loved The September Issue. But she is the editor of Vogue and weighs three stone. She lives to wear colour. As do, say, Kate Middleton or the Queen. They have to wear colour so that people can see them.

I do not have to be seen and I do not live to wear colour. I live to not have a nervous breakdown because not only am I still more than a stone overweight I cannot find anything to wear when I have to go out. Answer: BLAAAAAAAAAAACCKKKK. It has made shopping for clothes, which I find a fascinating but ultimately futile exercise, a total doddle: anything as long as it's black.

And, during the day I will wear sports luxe, i.e. running shoes, nice running capris and a marl sweater. I'm only going to spend the whole day running up and down the stairs, bending over and getting covered in sick and crap anyway. It's a sort of workout!!! Done. Thanks.

O, the irony, then! that my exercise regime has slightly fallen by the wayside, although not totally. After nearly crippling my knees with my ten-minute runs (I did not warm up or down properly, or have any rest days) I have turned instead to doing a lot of plies in dead moments of the day, i.e. when both children are occupied just enough so I don't have to do anything, but not so much that I can sit down with the newspaper (or have a nap).

So if Sam is having a think in his bouncer and Kitty is pulling apart whatever brilliant Marble Run I have constructed, I will stand at the kitchen counter and do plies. Sometimes I will throw in some Tracy Anderson arm exercises. My rationale is that there's not much cardio I can do while gooning about with two kids, but if I can chuck in some leg-and-bum toning, it makes these moments of childcare feel less like a total waste of my time.

Another staggering achievement was that I did not come back from holiday heavier than when I left (though nor am I any lighter). So my morale enables me to continue with my diet, rather than falling into a pit of despair and mini Mars Bars.

I was given a while ago a copy of Marvellous Meals With Mince by Josceline Dimbleby. I promptly lost the book in the black hole of my kitchen but then re-found it the other day and last night made from it a sort of version of her meatloaf.

I have only ever eaten meatloaf once, when I was about seven, and thought it profoundly disgusting. But I have moved on and grown up since then - I have totally and completely decided on what my signature should be, for example - and found this delightful.

It is absolutely up to you what you put in it. The original recipe specified a sort of blue cheese sauce layer running through the meatloaf but I didn't have any blue cheese. There are so many other changes to this recipe that I can, in fact, declare it as my own.

Esther's Meatloaf

Serves 2 very hungry people or 4 less hungry with substantial side dishes

500g beef mince
2 handfuls breadcrumbs or medium matzoh meal
1 egg
5 tablespoons of ketchup
1 handful parsley, chopped. maybe some sage if you have it knocking about. Alternatively 1 heaped tsp dried oregano
1 small onion or 1/2 large onion, chopped
4 rashers streaky bacon, chopped
1 large clove garlic, chopped or grated
1 big pinch of dried mushrooms, rehydrated and chopped (or a large handful of fresh mushrooms - any you like, chopped roughly)
1 tsp of dried chilli flakes (if you like, I thought the slight spiciness was terrific but leave it out if you don't fancy it)
salt and pepper

Set your oven to 180C

1 Put everything except 2 tbsp of the ketchup in a bowl and get in there with your hands to mix it up. I have vinyl surgical gloves I use for this very purpose - or for when I am handling fresh chillies just before bath time. Season very well with salt and pepper. By that I mean a large pinch of salt and a good fifteen turns of the pepper grinder

2 Butter a 1 kg loaf tin. If you do not have a 1kg loaf tin in your life, do consider buying one. They are very useful for all manner of loaf cakes, bread, meatloaf, pates and things. I use mine all the time.

3 Tip in the mixture and smooth the top. Bake for 1hr.

4 Take out the tin and turn your oven up to as high as it will go. Tip the loaf carefully onto an oven tray and spread with the rest of the ketchup. Put it back into the oven for 10 mins, when the ketchup will be a bit blackened and bubbly.

And that's it. I'm terribly excited about this. You can add all sorts of exciting flavours to it - CURRY?? - and I can see it as a super mass-catering solution, just double the quantities and have it cold. You could even hide hard boiled eggs inside! Oh my days!! *fans self* *dies* (I've got a lot of black clothes you can borrow to wear to my funeral).




Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Salmon courgette noodles with basil



You wouldn't know that I get any negative comments on this blog. Because I delete them.

It's my blog, I reckon, and I am queen of it and if I don't want to read shit about myself, let alone publish it, then I don't have to. Plus sometimes I think there's something a bit tell-tale and needy about publishing mean things - "Look everyone!! Look how MEAN she was to me!" I'd rather just take the bad stuff on the chin - read, delete. Move on.

But, if you are curious as to what the negative comments I get DO say, they say "God stop moaning," and "Why did you have kids then?" or "What did you expect?" or "You sound like a spoilt whinging child."

I absolutely hear all that. I do - I hear you, haters! Loud and clear! I can see why you feel that way. Why DID I have children, then. Or at least, why did I have another one?

So

1) It's not awful, it's fine once you get used to it. It gets you outside. It gives a shape and a movement to your day, to life. Your own children are fascinating. They say idiotic and hilarious things, you get to revisit colouring in and stuff like that. There is a frisson of excitement at the possibility that your child might be useful to society - they might do something about world debt, or discover a cure for cancer, or just sweep the streets very efficiently.

But having very small children is also like being an Olympic athlete. You cannot do it unless there are people around you saying "Go for it, dude.". Writing about it and getting support back keeps a spring in my step. In turn, I say what you might be thinking but cannot articulate because you are too fucking tired. I am your coach, your support boat, the bloke with the ringside towel and the weeny stool - and you mine.

2) All my life I've been the person who stayed behind. If there was a walk to be walked or a hike to be hiked, or shorthand to be learned or a rave to be raved or a game of hockey to be played or a ditch to be dug or a field to be sown, I was the one who opted to stay home and clear up, or make lunch. Or just not go.

As the do-ers set off, I always felt smug. Ha ha, I would think. Suckers.

But after about half an hour I was always bored. And after an hour, going crazy. After two hours, I would think - where ARE they? When are they coming back? I am lonely and fretful, unable to settle to anything, jumping at small noises. And now feel stupid for staying behind. They will be back soon. Any time now.

The do-ers would always be back a good hour after the latest I thought they would be back - and they were never really back. The experience had changed them - they were no longer the same people, they had moved on, especially in relation to me. They had had a joint experience, whether it was good or bad, and I had not been part of that.

I had dodged it out of laziness and fear, out of a desire to keep my life the way that it was (i.e. sitting about in my pyjamas in the warm) rather than offering myself up for a period of discomfort in order to put my comfort into perspective, or in order to learn something, to add something, to experience something. When the do-ers came back as far as they were concerned everything was just as it was - all the comforts, all the joys. The difference was they had enriched their lives and I had not.

I was the sucker, not them.

And so when it came to children, I was not going to be the sucker. I was not going to hang back in my pyjamas while everyone else set off with Kendall mint cake in their pockets and a stiff upper lip. I was not going to sit about twiddling my thumbs while everyone else raged over their shorthand or got their faces splattered with mud or put their feet down rabbit holes and fell in burns. I was not going to wait and wait and wait for everyone else to return, only to realise that the people I was waiting for were never coming back.

It was not the fear of missing out, you understand - I absolutely know what it is to miss out. I spent 30 years missing out. There was no fear involved: it was cold, hard understanding of what happens when you opt out. If I opted out of children I would opt out of a certain kind of family life that I would not like to be without. I would opt out of grandchildren. I would opt out of that shared experience, which is exhausting and traumatising - but not constantly. Not fatally. I would be left at home, in my pyjamas, not enjoying my book or my bath or my free time, but worried about where everyone else was, fretting that I had made a terrible mistake until it was too late to do anything about it.

And dealing with two children under 3 is nothing compared with that sort of existential crisis.

3) I did, in fact, know exactly what I was letting myself in for because not only do I have 5 nieces and nephews, my little sister was born when I was eight. I might not act like it but I think little tiny kids are always delightful and engaging, even when they are being horrible and whiney. And I know, because I watched my little sister grow up, that they are very small and difficult for such a short time, relatively speaking.  In the grand scheme of things, the really hard bit is the equivalent of a long-ish Sunday afternoon walk up some hills in the rain when you're a bit hungry.

But then you get back to the house and there are scones and a hot bath and everything's ok. And children get to four years old and they are staggeringly brilliant fun. Nobody's in a nappy, nobody needs a bloody sleep at 1.30pm. Everyone understands bribery etc. They have little friends...

And don't get me started on grandchildren. I am already planning to be No 1 Granny with the campaigning cunning worthy of Napoleon. I feel sorry for the woman whose daughter marries my son. I really do. ("Noooooo!!! I want Granny Coren! I want Granny Coren!" - HA HA HA). I may still be writing this blog, except it will be called Recipe Dribble and include mostly recipes for soup.

Ok how about some food, yah? Not soup. This is a thing I cooked recently that was surprisingly nice and excellent if you're on a diet.

It utilises a thing called Slim Noodles, which are like Zero Noodles mentioned in my previous post but vitally these things are AVAILABLE ON OCADO!!! So from now on until I weigh 9 stone again, (I am 10 stone 5 now), every evening meal will feature these. There are only 7 calories per pack. SEVEN!

This is based on the principle of my Asian Baked Salmon but I have used a different marinade because just between you and me I was getting bored of the Asian-ness of the old one. That's not racist!!

Salmon courgette noodles with basil
for 2

2 salmon fillets
1 handful basil
2 spring onions
1/2 handful mint
some light soy sauce
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 tsp chilli flakes
1 courgette, diced into 2cm (ish) bits
1 packet Slim Noodles, or two if you are feeling wild

Preheat the oven to 200C

1) Put the basil, mint, spring onions, 2 tbsp soy sauce, garlic and chilli into a whizzer and whizz

2) Put the salmon fillets on a strip of foil long enough to make a little parcel and then paint the salmon with your basil paste

3) Put this in the oven for 25 mins

4) Meanwhile fry off your courgette die in some hot groundnut oil over a medium flame. When they are tinged dark brown and starting to collapse (about 15-20 mins) sprinkle with salt. Then drain and rinse your magic noodles and add them to the courgette. Turn in the oil for 3-4 mins and then shake over some more soy sauce.

5) Plonk some noodles in a bowl and then scoop chunks of salmon off its skin and arrange artistically on top.

Eat and try to ignore the nagging feeling that someone, somewhere, is having more fun that you.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Prawn and spinach curry with lemongrass paste



After Kitty was born I had been writing quite a lot about the general lifeshock of having a baby, the discombobulation, the adjustment, the anxiety, the occasional moments of despair - you know. My usual thing.

And I had been thundering away on my laptop and capturing, I thought really brilliantly, the whole thing. TRUTH, I said to myself *tappety tappety tappety* It's all about TRUTH. I also thought it was quite funny.

Then separately two people "took me aside" and asked me if I was "alright". Was I, maybe, suffering from a bit of post natal depression?

My first instinct was to laugh. It struck me as hilarious that I was writing fully consciously about the difficulties of new motherhood in an, I thought, totally self-aware and solid, non-mad way and these people took me to be nuts. So I felt like laughing and laughing and then vomiting and bit and crying for a few seconds from sheer mania. Then my second instinct was to yell "Of COURSE I've got post natal depression. Having a baby can be a bit DEPRESSING." And my third and final instinct was to say "I'm just telling the truth! This is how it is! You think I'm a fucked up basket case because you haven't got any kids and don't know what it's like!!"

In the end I think I just said "No honestly I'm fine."

Any idle chatter about post natal depression enrages me, as it is to diminish actual sufferers (I understand what hell it must be) and to diminish the, I don't know, the... noble suffering of motherhood. It can be terrible and God fucking damn it, I can take it. (But not without a lot of moaning.) So it irritates me that absolutely any even slightly negative emotion related to having a small baby and suddenly you've got PND. It's the equivalent of liking to wash your hands before you cook dinner and suddenly you've got OCD.

People also talk about it in a slightly hushed way, as if rather than just feeling a bit tired and claustrophobic you were Bertha fucking Mason charging round your attic in your nightie gibbering and clawing at your eyes with long dirty fingernails.

I wish this sort of caper was referred to as post-natal stress or post-natal trauma or post-natal anxiety - or even drop the post-natal, thanks. Can we all just assume, please, that anyone who's just had a baby - first or second or third or eighth, is not going to find life and the world a constant bellylaugh for a bit? Maybe for quite a long time!

It doesn't need to be fixed or solved. Nobody needs to go and see a flipping doctor (unless you really are charging round the attic in your dirty nightie). All you want, when you've just had a baby, is a bit of discreet sympathy. "Mmm yes it's so hard," is what you want to hear. "It's the same for everyone. It'll get better."

A strange side-effect of post-natal gloom is of course that you are absolutely delightful to your children to compensate. Kitty knows I'm a bit down in the dumps because she gets showered with attention, smiles and an unusual enthusiasm for Play-Doh and drawing. ("Mummy Mummy look at my picture!" "Kitty I love that picture."I usually do, after all.) Sam cannot believe how many weird noises I am capable of making and for how long I can play Where Is Sam? There Is Sam! (Where Is Mummy? She's In the Dark Teatime Of The Soul!)

Anyway here is my very handy guide to Post-Natal Trauma. It sounds, in abbreviation, like PMT. But then so does PND. My message is: it's all different sides of the same coin.

Your schedule, if you have just had a baby, ought to go something like this.

For the first year you will be suddenly, randomly hormonal and cry at strange things and shout at your husband for no reason (or sometimes for perfectly good reasons). If it is your first child you cannot believe how tired you are. You feel like you have been expertly beaten up by secret police. You live on coffee. You cannot remember anything.

On top of this you will experience:

First Weekend as Mother depression when you realise Oh My God there are no days off.

First Fight with Husband over child/childcare/child's routine etc. He says you're uptight and tense about everything. You say Fuck You you've got no idea what this is like. You realise Oh My God we're not a sexy carefree couple anymore. We're not this, like, perfect soul matey match that nothing can tear asunder. We're just a couple of idiots who barely know each other with a child to look after.

Three Months In depression when you realise Oh My God this is going to go on forEVER. If it is your second child, round about now it hits you how little of the way through the first year you are, and how much longer you have to go before Child 1 and Child 2 can interact in any useful way (even if this means fighting). You also suddenly remember: teething!

First Winter depression when you realise Oh My God winters used to be fun! With log fires and spending entire days in bed reading spicy novels! Long red wine lunches with friends! Now winter is about Noro - who's got it? Who's had it? - indoor play, one streaming cold after another and long dark afternoons.

Going on Holiday depression when you realise Oh My God going anywhere with a baby is a flipping hassle and they don't want to sit about all day on a sun lounger reading Life After Life. They want to eat sand and wake up at 0500 due to flimsy holiday rental window treatments. This is combined with First Flight depression where you do 5 hours with a 13 month old and vow never to leave England by air again.

Childcare Depression where you realise Oh My God I cannot buy my way out of trouble. "I'll just get a nanny/send it to daycare if it's annoying," you said breezily when you were pregnant. Then you have the little weasel and realise that nothing is ever that simple. You realise that no bastard can look after this baby properly except you. They will upset it, they will get it wrong, it will feel abandoned. You'd rather do it all yourself. Which leads to...

...Self-Image Depression where you realise Oh My God how did my feet get so disgusting? I cannot remember the last time I got my hair cut. Why is my wardrobe full of clothes from 2007? Why do I only ever wear grey skinny jeans with Converse and a Breton top? Where did it all go? Who am I?

If you don't experience any of the above with your child or children then I salute you and congratulate you and envy you. But, hear this: you are the freak, not me.

Well I don't know about you but all that talk about feeling blue has cheered me up no end and made me feel really quite peckish. So let's turn with appropriate haste to this prawn and spinach curry that has been a big hit with us dieters.

It has been aided by a thing I found in a tube in Waitrose called lemongrass paste.

My basic curry mix, which I turn to in times of stress and confusion (but not depression, you understand), goes like this:

1 chilli, seeds in
2 spring onions
1 tsp fish sauce
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 small bunch coriander if there's any in the garden/I have some hanging about
some grated ginger - about 1 tbsp
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 large clove garlic, peeled
Some lime juice? Lime zest?

Then in it all goes into the little whizzer - whizz whizz. And if I ever come across some exotic thing that might change the flavour and thus our entire dinner, I like to throw it in too just for fun. Because I am that wild. I worked my way through a pot of tamarind paste a few months ago but just between you and me I didn't see what difference it made. And when I have fresh lemongrass I add that. But this paste, in a tube, which you keep in your fridge for curry emergencies is my idea of a good time. There it is: an instant new note to dinner sitting gamely in the fridge.

So what you do with your curry paste/mix once it has been tamed in your whizzer is fry it off gently in some groundnut oil, then add one small can coconut milk, (Waitrose do mini ones, about 170ml, which has enabled me to make curries regularly. Those normal-sized cans of coconut milk are insane - I am not making a curry for 400 people, people!), then add some chicken stock, about a pint (a cube will do) and simmer all this gently for about 30 mins. If you feel your curry is still too liquid at this point, you can simmer further until it reduces to a pleasing consistency.

To this you can add whatever you like. I am into frozen peeled prawns at the moment, also tofu and spinach and fried courgettes (see previous post). AND we recently had this with some Zero Noodles, which you may have read about in MailOnline, (don't pretend you don't), which are those noodley things that are made of some strange seaweed and taste of nothing but add reassuring bulk to an otherwise sparse curry.

Zero Noodles are, disappointingly, not available at Waitrose, only online or from Holland & Barrett (and some other shops I can't remember). They are fiendishly expensive so I use them sparingly, only about once or twice a month. But when I remember that it's time to get them out I'm always pleased and relieved: that's the thing about diets - you just have to try not to let them depress you.