Pina colada cake

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Bert has a new thing of telling me his secrets, accompanied by the whisper, ‘this is top, top secret’. I obviously can’t reveal any here, but I’m really enjoying hearing them. Some are a long way from being news to me, but others are genuinely surprising – a wonderful reminder that we never really know anyone as well as we think we do.

I’ve had to repay him with my own secrets (one secret buys one secret), and I didn’t think I really had any, but it’s amazing what you can rustle up if you have to – and how therapeutic it is to share it.

Yes, I like Pina Coladas, and getting caught in the rain. I’m not much into health food, I am into champagne. I’m not that into yoga and I have half a brain.

None of those are my real secrets.

Makes one 20cm cake which lasted us about an hour

40g soft brown sugar

150g pineapple chunks

115g butter

115g golden caster sugar

2 eggs

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

100g dessicated coconut

4 tablespoons coconut milk (I’ll make chicken and mushroom biryani with the rest) (probably)

225g self-raising flour

Preheat the oven to 140 fan. Grease a 20cm round tin well, then sprinkle in the brown sugar and layer in the pineapple. Add a bit more pineapple if you like things pineapple-y.

Beat the sugar and butter together till really light and fluffy then add the eggs, cinnamon (a Smitten Kitchen recipe got me into the idea of cinnamon in coconut cakes – it gives it a toasty, mellow nuttiness), coconut and coconut milk. Finally stir in the flour, just until you can’t see it, and spoon the mixture on top of the pineapples. Smooth over and bake for about 45-50 minutes, till golden and springy.

Obviously turn upside down to serve. Perhaps with champagne.

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Leftover roast chicken, pea and rosemary macaroni

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On the way to school earlier this week, I wound down the car windows to clean the rainwater off them so I could see out. Bert burst into tears because he still wanted to look at the dirty water.

I want him to be comfortable with expressing emotions. But do we need to howl to the moon in despair and prepare to die when our mother looks at a toy aardvark at the wrong moment? I don’t see his mates inconsolable over a shoe being put on before a hat. There’s a balance to be had, somehow, and I feel the need to help him navigate this.

So I launched into an explanation that I became more self-satisfied with the further I got. ‘Some sadnesses are like tiny spiders on your shoulder. You have to learn to shake them off by yourself. Others are like big pigs, you need help in lifting them off. This is a small spider.’

But it didn’t go down quite how I hoped. Did you know there are spiders in the Amazon rainforest the size of dinner plates? Well, we both do now.

Yesterday I told him to brush his toothbrush. ‘That’s a sentence but one word is wrong,’ he told me. ‘I do that all the time,’ I admitted. ‘So it’s not a mistake, it’s your personality,’ he summed up brutally.

Tonight he cried because bath-time had come and I hadn’t yet sorted a box of his accumulated randomness into the categories of nature, animals and favourite toys. I brushed the tears off quickly, did a speedy nature sort and popped him in the bath without comment.

No point trying to correct a mistake when you’re just dealing with a personality.

Serves 3

Leftover cold roast chicken and its carcass

1 carrot

1 onion

Sprinkling of peppercorns

2 teaspoons sea salt

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

3 garlic cloves, crushed

200g macaroni

Teaspoon dried rosemary

3 or so large handfuls of frozen peas

Juice of half a lemon

Grated parmesan

Strip the decent chicken from the carcass, set the chicken meat aside and put the bones in a large saucepan with the unpeeled onion, chopped in half, the carrot, the peppercorns and the salt. Cover with water, bring to the boil and simmer for around 3 hours (check the water isn’t running low). Drain (put a colander over a large bowl). Set aside 450ml of the stock for this recipe and keep any more in the fridge for soups. (Of course, you could skip this stage and use a stock cube and precooked chicken, but it won’t be quite as tasty.)

Heat the olive oil in a big saucepan and gently fry the chopped onion, garlic and rosemary till soft. Add the uncooked macaroni, stock and chicken, bring to the boil and simmer for about 15 minutes. Add the peas for the final 5 minutes then squeeze in the lemon juice at the end. Serve with lots of Parmesan.

This is a version of a recipe in The National Trust Family Cookbook.

French macaroni cheese

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I wish this was our house, but it’s a hotel in France. Here’s Bert playing table tennis with style, verve, determination and very little skill. In sports terms, he only gets the latter from me, but I have put many hours’ work into trying to create a macaroni cheese recipe that shoe-horns in as many veg as my bolognaise does. I have failed.

But the macaroni cheese the hotel gave Bert was delicious so I tried to mimic its more delicate flavour and thinner, less sticky consistency when we got home.

Bert’s verdict was that it was ‘almost as good as school’s’. (Why thank you, Sir.) It’s also a lot easier to make than normal macaroni cheese – but impossible to hide any veg in. I think that’s a deuce.

Serves 3-4

1/2 bag of dried macaroni

1 garlic clove, cut in half

Butter for greasing the dish

250ml double cream

250g grated Gruyere cheese

250g grated Cheddar cheese

Cook the pasta as per instructions and pre-heat the oven to 180. Meanwhile, rub the cut side of the garlic over the inside your baking dish and then grease the dish with the butter. Combine the cooked pasta with half of the cheese and all of the cream, tip into the baking dish and then sprinkle the rest of the cheese on top. I didn’t season as cheese is fairly salty but you could add some pepper. Bake for about 20 minutes till bubbling.

The hotel served it with a sort of chopped Greek salad of finely chopped tomatoes, cucumber and a sprinkling of finely chopped feta cheese, drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with pepper. Bert ate the salad neither time, but I ate his portions both times.

 

White chocolate, oat and banana loaf

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Here’s the reason I don’t write this blog much these days: this is the reaction I get to most things I cook. He feels about my cooking the way he feels about my reverse parking, the state of my car and my decision to send him to holiday club for five days this summer – existentially disappointed.

But my car’s a state partly because of a five-year-old who opens party bags in it and discards the rubbish, and who tidies up spilt crumbs by brushing them disdainfully onto the floor; and we liked this loaf so here’s the recipe.

Makes one loaf

120ml vegetable oil

125g golden caster sugar

2 eggs

3 overripe bananas

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

60g plain yoghurt

125g plain flour

90g rolled oats

100g white chocolate chips or pieces

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

Preheat the oven to 180/ 160 fan. Mix all of the ingredients together (no need to mash the banana if it’s very ripe and you’re using a food mixer) and tip into a lined 1lb loaf tin (25cm x 12.5cm). Bake for 50 minutes for an hour. Eat warm with vanilla icecream or cold.

 

 

Emergency cookies

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It’s now safe to name your favourite colour in this house, but name your favourite animal at your own risk. Bert’s dad agreed that he liked monkeys (he doesn’t particularly like monkeys) and now has two monkeys and a monkey balloon next to his bed and a sticker of a grinning gorilla behind the bedroom door at head height. I’m using an aardvark as a bookend (I genuinely love an aardvark, to be fair) and a medium-sized bear sits next to my perfume.

Much of this benevolence happens by stealth. Bert’s dad’s working in Canada at the moment and Bert and I happened to find out that the waters round Vancouver have sea otters in. Last night, two hours after Bert was in bed, I found a poster with two otters and the phrase ‘time for a snuggle!’ on it on the bed, on his dad’s side.

His dad made the mistake of mentioning that there are bears in Canada, and I’d say one out of three of the texts Bert regularly dictates and asks me to send is, ‘take a secret picture of the bears.’ His dad’s staying in a hotel in the middle of a large city. There’s absolutely no chance of running into a wild bear.

When he returns on Sunday we may well need emergency cookies.

Makes 30

225g butter

150g granulated sugar

150g soft brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 eggs

275g plain flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

A couple of handfuls of chocolate chips (or Easter egg chocolate in this case)

2 dessert spoons peanut butter powder

Cream butter and sugar together till they’re really light and fluffy – a good five minutes in the mixer or ten minutes with strong arms and stamina. Add the eggs and vanilla, then stir in the flour, peanut butter powder and baking powder. Stir the chocolate through.

You can just cook it now – pop teaspoons of mixture on an unlined baking tray and bake at 190 for 8-9 minutes. Or, even better, freeze teaspoons of mixture in an icecube tray, decanting to a container when completely frozen and keeping in the freezer till you need them.

Emergency? Is your child hungry? Angry? Hangry? Scuffed knee? Surprised by a friend’s unexpectedly tight cuddle? Shocked by someone calling them by their name at 8am in their own house ? Crushed that their mother didn’t pretend to be prey and get eaten by a sleeping lion on a dog walk, when the sleeping lion looked just like a five-year-old boy and she didn’t know she was prey? Then put the oven onto 180, get a couple of frozen cookie mixture balls out of the freezer and pop them, still frozen, onto an unlined baking sheet. Bake for 11-12 minutes, till golden, and eat warm.

Beef and mushroom burgers, corn on the cob and potato wedges

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The other day, Bert’s dad mentioned this author to me. ‘I love her writing!’ I said and added, never one to miss an opportunity, ‘That would be a great Mother’s Day present for someone who admired her writing.’ He gave me the noted look.

A couple of days later a book-shaped parcel arrived. At dinnertime, Bert and his dad asked me what I wanted for Mother’s Day. ‘Aren’t you supposed to think of it yourselves?’ I said. ‘Or else there’s a book I want.’

‘Oh, I’m keeping that for myself,’ Bert’s dad said. Bert followed me into the study and said, ‘what thing do you love and want most in the world?’

‘You,’ I said. ‘Or jewelry.’

He reported back and then came back in, while I was Googling bracelets, to say, ‘something cheaper.’

‘I love bubble bath and books,’ I said.

A sign went up on Bert’s bedroom door reading ‘no Mother’s Day presents in here!!!’ and I was instructed absolutely not to look in his room, especially not on the bookshelf, and absolutely especially not on the top shelf.

At bathtime I said to him, ‘I also really like snuggly things like blankets or this bubble bath here.’

‘Mum,’ he said wearily, ‘we already got you a Mother’s Day present. We don’t need to know any more.’

Did I mention there’s a book I wanted?

Serves 3

500g minced beef

2-3 good sized closed cup mushrooms

Salt to season

A slice of cheddar each burger (or on the side if you’re five)

Three brioche buns

A few leaves of cos lettuce and a few sliced baby tomatoes to garnish

Mayonnaise and ketchup

‘Enough’ potatoes

1/2 teaspoon mixed spice

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon onion salt

1 tablespoon sunflower oil

2-3 corn on the cobs

Teaspoon of butter

Sprinkle of salt to season

Pre-heat the oven to 200 fan.

Only you know how many potato wedges are enough. Don’t peel the potatoes, just cut into quarters or sixths, if bigger, lengthways. Put in a bowl, sprinkle on the spices, tip in the oil and mix to coat thoroughly. Lay on a lined baking tray in a single layer and cook for 35 minutes, turning half way.

Dot butter on the corn, season, wrap in foil and put on a tray in the same oven as the wedges for 30 minutes.

Mince the mushrooms finely and add to the minced beef in a bowl. Season, combine with your hands and form into three burgers, about an inch thick however big they are (for adults, aim for a little bigger than the bun, as they’ll shrink in the pan). Get a frying pan really hot, cover the base with a thin layer of oil and press the burgers firmly into the bottom of the pan to form a nice, savoury crust. Cook for 10 minutes, turning and pressing down firmly with a spatula again half way through. The pan needs to be hot enough for you to be nervous of smoke alarms. Only turn once. Do not fiddle with them.

When done, pop the slices of cheese on top, put a lid (or large baking sheet) on top of the pan and turn the heat off. The cheese will melt while you toast the buns, slice the tomatoes and spread mayo and ketchup on one half of each bun. (Or puddle the ketchup in a separate compartment of your plate if you’re five.)

You wouldn’t know the mushrooms were there if you hadn’t been told, but they make the burgers more moist and give the flavour a bit more depth. (And when was the last time a 5-year-old ate a mushroom?)

Gnocchi with tomato and sausage sauce

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Bert has eaten packet gnocchi and loved it, so I thought this was a sure-fire win, especially since it involved him rolling it out like play-doh.

We went round the table listing our favourite puddings (Bert’s: the icecreams that come with a flake in and Revels – all my time making apple pies and crumbles and cakes wasn’t wasted, then.) He ate two gnocchi and looked perturbed, then concerned, then indignant.

‘Let’s play a new game,’ he said. ‘This time the things we don’t like.’

‘Okay.’

‘Bert first.’

‘Okay, what’s on your list?’

‘Number one,’ [points at plate] ‘this!’

As you can see, it was no trouble at all to make so that was absolutely fine with me.

Serves 3

3 baking potatoes (about 1 kg)

3 teaspoons sea salt

150g 00 or plain flour

Salt and pepper to season

1 beaten egg

1 carrot, grated

1 tablespoon olive oil

6 sausages, sliced into bite sized pieces

1 tin chopped tomatoes

1 dessert spoon red pesto

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

1/2 head broccoli florets

Put the oven on to 200. Get the potatoes wet under a running tap and sprinkle with salt. Bake for around an hour, till soft. Leave to cool slightly.

Scoop out the potato and push through a potato ricer or a sieve and tip onto a board. Add the flour and seasoning. Make a well in the centre, add the egg, and mix it all together with your hands until you have a soft dough (don’t overwork it). It’s important you do this bit while the potatoes are still warm so the gnocchi are tender.

Heat the oil in a sauce pan and gently fry the grated carrot until starting to melt into the oil. Add the sausages and brown. Then add the tomatoes and pesto and vinegar, and cook for around 15 minutes. When there’s five minutes to go steam or boil your broccoli, either stirring it in at the end, or keeping it as a side dish if you have a five-year-old in the house who likes strict food type ghettos.

Meanwhile, bring a large pan of saltedĀ  water to the boil and reduce to a fast simmer. Roll the gnocchi dough out into sausages about the width of your thumb (five-year-olds are useful helpers at this point), cut into small pieces and drop into the water. They’re cooked when they rise to the surface – fish them out with a slotted spoon and blot on kitchen paper. Serve with the sausage sauce (with or without broccoli) and cheese.