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.

 

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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.

 

 

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.

Easy sausage and pepper casserole

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Bert’s perfectly happy to go back to school after the Christmas break, so long as he can have another hundred years off first. I feel the same.

Today, we walked around the park with Ray, and Bert talked to me with his characteristic laconic earnestness about the problems of swimming (‘water gets up my noz-holes even when I wear my gobbles’). There is a bittersweet gorgeousness to a small child – not just in their malapropisms and bun-plump cheeks, but in the sense that they are not properly living within time yet. They sit solidly in the moment, and everything else is a hundred years away. It feels like there’s a wormhole rush of time around their stout little beings, and your future nostalgia whips you in the face as it passes at speed. It makes some moments so icily sweet that they give you brain freeze.

When we got back in, Bert put back on the pyjamas he’d reluctantly taken off to walk the dog and I put this in the oven and made cheese on toast. Bert ruminated on how cheese on toast was probably Ray’s favourite thing in the world (‘but he eats horse poo and his breath is so bad it makes my ears hurt’) and we made owls out of toilet roll middles and penguins out of Actimel bottles.

Serves 3-4

6-8 sausages

1 red pepper, sliced

1 orange pepper, sliced

1 tin of chopped tomatoes

Olive oil

Salt and pepper

Brown the sausages in a little olive oil in a large saucepan that has a lid. Meanwhile heat the oven to 150. When the sausages are nicely coloured, add the red and orange peppers and the tinned tomatoes, swilling the tin out with water and adding maybe a quarter or a third of that to the pot. Season and bring to a fast simmer. Pop the lid on and slow cook in the oven for 3-4 hours. The sausages will be soft and tender (a winner with four-year-olds – ‘I cut it without a fork, Mum!’) and the sauce rich and sweet. You may need to ladle a little oily liquor off at the end (depends how fatty the sausages are, perhaps?). Serve with mash and corn on the cob, and a game of Bird Bingo,

Hedgerow fool

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Bert’s been at school for two full days and he’s run through the full gamut of emotions. From a summer-long excitement, to hysteria the day before term began, jangling nerves on the morning itself, through to jubilance at the end of the first day. (‘It was brilliant. I don’t know why I nervous.’)

He then moved, after a total of 12 hours in school, onto a nonchalant confidence. When I picked him up today, I asked him what he’d been doing and he said, ‘I spent a lot of time working in the office, organising things’. Surely they hadn’t moved him into a paid administrative role already? Turned out he was demonstrating his ability to sort colours into the right piles and numbers into the correct order. ‘I got them all right,’ he claimed, and nodded at me that the road was safe to cross.

But by 4.30, the cheery confidence had shifted into a melancholic nostalgia for the old days. ‘We don’t laugh at the same things anymore, Mum,’ he said wistfully in the car on the way to the supermarket to buy the makings of home-made fruit lollies. ‘We used to.’ ‘What do you mean? I just laughed at about a hundred of your jokes.’ ‘Not the last one, in the car.’ He stared out of the window, mouth set in a straight line, remembering the good times, now irrevokably passed, before we drifted apart.

The day before term started, before it all went wrong, we picked blackberries and made a blackberry fool.

Serves 4

400g blackberries

100ml elderflower cordial

2 tablespoons golden caster sugar

150ml thick Greek yoghurt

150ml cold custard

Put the washed blackberries in a pan with the cordial and sugar. Heat till bubbling then simmer merrily for about 10 minutes, crushing the berries against the side of the pan to make a very rough, chunky sauce. Cool.

Fold the cooled fruit, yoghurt and custard together briefly till combined but still rippled. Chill in the fridge for at least an hour before serving, more time if you have it.

Easy peasy macaroni cheesey

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… pleasey.

This is Nigella’s easy macaroni cheese recipe (I say ‘mac ‘n’ cheese’ for no one), pimped up with peas and mint.

Serves 4

250ml evaporated milk (not condensed!)

125g red Leicester cheese, grated

125g Cheshire cheese, grated

2 eggs, beaten (so you don’t get little clots of scrambled egg in there)

2 handfuls fresh peas

1 small spring of mint, leaves roughly chopped (flavour plus leaves – a massive risk when cooking for eagle-eyed small children, but worth it)

Salt and pepper

Half a bag of macaroni

Cook the pasta in boiling water till 1-2 minutes away from done. Put the oven on to 200 fan/ 220.

Combine the egg, cheese, evaporated milk, peas and mint with a little salt and pepper. Mix into the cooked pasta, tip into an ovenproof dish and cook in the oven for 15-20 minutes, till golden brown with little bits of crunch on top.

If you prepare it earlier and put it in the oven cold, give it 25 – 30 minutes.