Strawberry and yoghurt scones

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On Wednesdays we now have to grab a quick bite at a weird time between getting home from school at 4ish going to gymnastics class for 5ish. My intention is to make this a regular high tea, with sandwiches and home-made scones. No doubt by the end of term we’ll be eating cold Heinz spaghetti hoops on an old Jacob’s cracker that the dog’s already had a nibble of, but for Good Intentions Week the first week of term, I made these.

Bert said ‘I don’t even want the rest of my sandwich because the other things are so very  very much nicer.’

Because of the yoghurt, they’re a bit more tender and slightly less risen than ‘normal’ scones, but very very much nicer.

Makes 12 small or 6 large scones

225g self-raising flour, more for dusting

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

50g cold butter, in small pieces

1.5 tablespoons golden caster sugar

140ml plain pouring yoghurt (or half and half milk and plain yoghurt)

60g strawberries, diced to about the size of raisins

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. ‘Breadcrumb’ the flour and butter by rubbing between your fingers and thumbs, or in a food processor. Stir through the sugar. Heat the pouring yoghurt (or milk+yoghurt) to hand temperature in a small pan, then take off the heat and stir the vanilla into it. Add the liquid to the flour and butter mixture and then very swiftly combine with a blunt knife to make a soft dough.

Flour a surface well and quickly press the dough into shape (about 2.5-3cm thick) on it. (The trick with scones is to touch the dough as little as possible.) It’s very soft but does hold together. Sprinkle the top with flour and then cut out 12 rounds with a champagne glass (get me) or 6 with a cookie cutter. Brush with beaten egg, pop on a floured baking tray and bake for 12-14 minutes, till golden brown. Eat the same day, with clotted cream (beneath the jam is the correct Cornish way) and jam.

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.

Blackberry Frangipane tart

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Me and Bert peaked today.

After a busy day with Ray’s annual fat shaming health check at the vet, last bits of school uniform to buy and food shopping to do, we pulled into the drive and Bert, as usual, wearily nagged me to reverse park, exasperation exceeding expectation.

I wrong footed him by agreeing. As I turned off the engine he asked, suspiciously, ‘is it on the grass or gravel?’ Affronted, I replied, ‘gravel, of course!’, surreptitiously sliding a glance out of the car window. Bert immediately borrowed my phone and rang his dad at work with the news. I heard his dad say, ‘she’s done what?’ as I opened the front door.

This is my last week with a pre-schooler and I’m trying to be happy for my excited boy, while brushing away a bit of sadness at the end of our Thursday book shop ritual and Wednesday singing group and any day pulling him out of nursery at short notice to be my partner in crime.

One positive, though, is that we will walk to school.

Makes one large tart

1 sheet of shop-bought (as peculiar and tautological a phrase as pan-fried) puff pastry

125g butter

125g golden caster sugar

3 eggs

125g ground almonds

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

2 small punnets or a good haul of picked blackberries

Pre-heat the oven to 170 fan.

Lay the pastry onto a baking tray and fold in each edge about a centimetre, so there’s a raised edge to contain the Frangipane.

Beat together the butter, sugar, eggs, almonds and ginger. Pour carefully into the pastry reservoir. Scatter the blackberries on top and bake for 30-35 minutes, till deep golden brown. The pastry will be crisp and buttery beneath.

Serve with thick double cream.

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.

Bert’s egg and tomato salad

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Yesterday I took Bert out to dinner and was reprimanded for not being spontaneous enough – always saying I had to cook when he wanted to play and always saying not yet or it’s time for bed. Though I am weary of receiving his driving advice (always involving the benefits of reverse parking), I decided to take this on board. It was approaching bedtime, but we stayed for pudding and when we got in he stripped off and jumped into the paddling pool and I was forcibly encouraged to sit down in it fully clothed.

You know what, maybe he had a point. So in the spirit of our children sometimes being able to teach us something, this is Bert’s receipe, created under the structure (I can’t help myself) of picking one thing to give you energy to play, one thing to help you grow, two different coloured things to keep you healthy and one flavour. He also decided all the bits should be separate, the eggs should be hard and the bread should be crunchy. Over to Bert.

For Mum and Bert

4 eggs

3 tomatoes

1/2 a cucumber

4 slices of tomato bread

Some oil and salt

2 big spoons of cream [creme fraiche]

Squeeze of half a lemon

Salt and pepper

Leafs – 1 big one [little gem] cut into 2, some little ones picked off [parsley leaves]

Boil the eggs till they’re hard then put them under cold water. Turn oven button all the way round to sideways till the oven’s very, very hot! Cut bread into small bits. Put on a baking tray. Sprinkle on a salt! And oil. Mix up with your hands then wash them. Mum puts bread in the oven for five minutes. Cut tomatoes up and cucumber. Mix cream and lemon up with a big spoon and put in salt and and pepper. Put leafs in Mum’s bowl because children don’t like leafs. Roll eggs, peel and then break them into halfs. Get a children’s plate. Put on tomatoes, cucumber, eggs and some toasted bread, on the children’s plate. Rest on Mummy’s plate. And sauce on Mummy’s plate. Then eat at a TV.

Cherry and almond loaf cake

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I drove Bert and Ray to the park after lunch, parked, after some difficulty finding a space, and opened the back car door. Ray sprinted, panting, to the park entrance nearest the children’s playground and Bert dillied and dallied, climbing into the driving seat and steering aggressively.

‘Quick!’ I said, ‘Ray’s already run in. There are children in there! He might scare them.’

(Ray always comes off in my blog as a disturbing, sweaty uncle but is in fact our dog, who has the spirit of a disturbing, sweaty uncle.)

‘You parked badly,’ he explained, ‘so I had to do it for you.’ He threw a patronising, toothy smile over his shoulder and screeched to an imaginary halt.

We had friends over this morning. The adults ate this and the children used icing as glue to stick sugar eyes, sugar carrots, hundred and thousands and mini marshmallows to biscuits – seven small children got through 15 biscuits, 12 sugar carrots and 53 sugar eyes and probably all did a little swivel-eyed backseat driving this afternoon.

Any cake serves as many as want it

125g soft butter

175g golden caster sugar

3 medium eggs

1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon almond essence

125g plain flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

45g ground almonds

125ml plain yoghurt

125g halved and stoned cherries tossed in 1/2 tablespoon of flour – supposedly stops the fruit sinking, but didn’t in this case. Call it a fruit layer cake and don’t apologise.

Preheat the oven to 180 and line a 2lb loaf tin, or a smaller loaf tin if you want deeper slices.

Cream the butter and sugar together well – till pale and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating the mixture well each time. Add the almond essence with the last egg. Fold in, carefully, the flour, baking powder, almonds and yoghurt, then gently stir through the cherries.

Bake for 40-50 minutes, till golden, springy to the touch and coming away from the sides.

It would be nice drizzled with glacé icing, but we had it plain.

Sweet and sour chicken (or tofu)

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Three years ago, our son asked us casually what our favourite colours were. Equally casually we replied – ‘red’; ‘blue’. Little did we realise that we’d unwittingly slipped a chain around our own necks – a chain that would be tightened, inch by inch, as the months and years passed.

It began as a way of sorting sweets. (Bert, cannily, selected pink, yellow, green, orange and purple as his signature colours.) It moved onto him crafting us little objects in the right colours – a blue owl made of toilet roll middles, a red octopus made out of a paper cup.

It got a shade more inconvenient when he began to insist that I put random red objects from around the home next to my bed – a red Rescue Bot or a red Superzing. Then, in a sinister flourish, this was extended to include any object with even the smallest dot of the right colour on.

In some desperation, last night I said to him, ‘I can’t keep everything red and everything that has a bit of red on it next to my bed, there’s no room and I’ll end up hating red.’

He looked at me with ice-cold eyes and said, dismissively, ‘you can have black too.’

This meal has a lot of red in it.

Serves 3

1 red pepper, diced

1 orange or yellow pepper, diced

1/2  a pineapple, diced (a tin of pineapple chunks or the majority of one of the plastic pots of them will do if you don’t have sufficient spare energy to wrestle a large, spiked fruit)

Drizzle of olive oil

2 chicken breasts, diced (and some diced firm tofu for the awkward veggies like me) – both in generous, bite sized chunks

120g self raising flour

100ml sparkling water

100ml tap water

2 tablespoons cornflour

Sunflower oil to shallow fry

(Yep, this is a faffy recipe, ingredients-wise)

1 tablespoon tomato ketchup

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar

2 tablespoons honey

1 tablespoon cornflour

2-3 tablespoons water (add more if necessary)

Chopped coriander and thinly sliced spring onions, to serve

Heat the oven to 200, throw the diced pepper and pineapple on a baking tray, drizzle with olive oil and roast for about 25 minutes, till starting to char round the edges.

Put the first lot of cornflour in one bowl, and in another whisk together the self raising flour and waters. Get the sunflower oil hot in a large pan (oil about 1cm deep, pan at least 10cm deep). Dip the chunks of chicken or tofu in the cornflour then the batter and then throw them place them gently into the hot pan. Cook for about 3 mins on each side, till they’re a deep, warm, golden brown.

Meanwhile put the ketchup, honey, soy, vinegar, cornflour and water into a small pan. If you happen to have some tamarind paste, add one or two teaspoons for that extra sour kick. Whisk together and simmer over a lowish heat till thickened – about five minutes. Keep checking it as it suddenly changes from watery to a thick sauce. Add a bit more water if you need to and whisk it up a little till it’s combined.

Tip the roast veg into the sauce and serve alongside the crisp chicken or tofu, sprinkling some coriander and spring onions onto adult servings. We ate it with plain boiled rice.

 

 

 

Raspberry sponge pudding

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I didn’t find my dad a particularly easy man. He could be fun, full of beans and brimming with jokes, face alive with mischief. But he could be the opposite too – sometimes he didn’t get out of bed all day and on that sort of day his presence was a black, dead space in the house, sucking everything into it. As an adult, I can see he struggled with mental health at a time when it wasn’t easy to say so. As a child I felt unsettled by the uncertainty and anxious about the shouting. As I got older I sometimes dreaded going home because of him.

But when he died eight years ago, I stopped seeing him as the person he was at a single moment in time and saw what he really was – all of those things together at once. The cheeky, slightly vulnerable little boy whose socks were falling down, the dad who always had an irrepressible joke in his eyes, a man with insatiable intellectual curiosity who was haunted by a black dog, an older man who’d somehow found patience and acceptance of a kind.

Since then I try, when I look at the people I love, to remind myself that the here and now is just one piece of a puzzle that makes up the whole of them. I look at Bert’s less and less round cheeks and the disappearing dimples on his hands and try to remember that the cuddly toddler will always be in there somewhere. I hope I live long enough to see as many of the pieces of his puzzle as I can, but I imagine that, in all of them, there’ll be glimpses of the focused earnestness and wild, cackling showmanship I see now.

Bert’s dad was already a father to two children when I met him, so it’s hard for me to imagine him as anything else – as Bert dictated for his Fathers Day card, ‘Dad loves children and children love Dad’. Whispered schemes about chocolate and wild wrestling matches seem as much an intrinsic part of him as Arsenal and the necessity to try on fifteen different shirts before going out. Of course there are many parts to the jigsaw puzzle that is him, but I think there’s a little corner of the picture of a dad on all of them.

As a society, we can be unnuanced in what we ask of our dads – that they accept fatherhood unquestioningly but don’t grieve the lack of it, that they’re always one-dimensionally fun and high-energy, and that they wear uncomplainingly the slightly hands-off and a bit useless persona. But I do know men who’d have been great dads who aren’t parents and may be sad about it, I know dads who are the cooks and the tear-wipers and dads who are the carers.

I made this raspberry pudding in a rush last week to follow the coq au vin (mushroom au vin for me) that Bert’s dad had spent the afternoon making. Normally I’d have tried to think of something that might spruce it up a little (it’s a bit of a plain cake) – white chocolate chips, lemon, coconut? – but I was in a hurry so this is what we had, with custard.

Serves 6

1 punnet of raspberries

1 tablespoon soft brown sugar

1/2 cup of soft butter

3/4 cup of golden caster sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 1/4 cups plain flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 cup whole milk

Pre-heat the oven to 180. Toss the raspberries with the soft brown sugar in a 20cm round cake tin.

Beat together the sugar and butter till light and fluffy – as long as your arm can bear it or about 5 minutes in a mixer. Add the eggs and vanilla. Gently fold through the flour and baking powder then add the milk.

Bake for 30-40 minutes till golden brown and firm. Serve, warm, with cream, icecream or custard. Good the next day too. What cake isn’t?

Salt and pepper tofu

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It’s hard to write this blog at the moment because there’s not much “me and Bert” food. I’m not eating meat. Bert’s not eating sauce, spice* (* flavour), wet food of any kind, most cooked vegetables and most dishes that combine different textures and flavours. And Bert’s dad is eating meat, flavour and sauce. So meals either centre on a dish that can be deconstructed for Bert and have meat added or removed, or a single thing we all eat (tonight: egg fried rice) with optional extras (tonight: slow-cooked pork belly, ginger and garlic stir-fried greens, a face made out of orange pepper and cucumber, and salt and pepper tofu).

Maybe this is the way a lot of families cook and eat, but it’s a right faff. My vision of motherhood was cooking up a single, hearty stew then lying back on the sofa and reading a book.

But it wasn’t having motherhood forced upon me before I was ready for it, able to be competent at it or desperately wanted it. Nor was it being enslaved by my fertility and having to chose between celibacy or endless babies. I did desperately want Bert, to the extent I remember standing on a beach in winter and praying to the infinitely blossoming and diminishing waves – because you never know.

But there were other times in my life when I desperately didn’t want to be a mother, and I’m pretty sure the immature, insecure 19-year-old me, who as yet had no idea how to take it into my own hands to make a relationship as good as it could be or leave it, who hadn’t yet acquired the simple life skill of figuring out what I wanted then trying to make it happen, was right in that conviction.

It would be wonderful if everyone who wanted to be a mother was a mother. If every childless couple felt child free. If every woman who, on reflection, wouldn’t really enjoy being a mother that much, didn’t feel the pressure to be one. But in the meantime we should all do everything we can to make sure every baby is a wanted baby.

I hope I’m not jumping the gun in saying well done, Ireland. For the first time in a few years the public vote seems to be going the way of sanity and proper, nuanced empathy.

I can be deeply thankful for my sauce-avoider, live with regret that we didn’t manage to have more, and still be glad that I was definitely free not to have children before I was ready. We are complex beings living in a complex world and we can have a lot of different things on the table at the same time.

So here’s to being able to make choices, even if setting up life to allow for that isn’t always easy.

Serves 1

1/2 pack tofu

1 egg

2 tablespoons cornflour

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

A lot – a lot – of salt and pepper (treat it as an ingredient not as seasoning)

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Cut the tofu into bite sized chunks. It’s very fragile. Don’t worry too much. Get the oil hot in a large frying pan. Beat the egg in one shallow bowl and combine the flour, sesame seeds, salt and pepper in another. (It needs to be cornflour – don’t be tempted to substitute.)

Dip the pieces of tofu in the egg then the flour mix and chuck them quickly into the pan before they fall apart. Keep the pan hot and cook quickly – a couple of minutes on each side till they’re crisp and golden. The savoury crunch of the outside gives way to a silky soft interior.

No one else will eat it – shame.

Rhubarb and custard scones

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These are the days that matter, the quiet days that so easily get lost in the clamour of ambitions and disappointments, big plans and minor heartbreaks.

Days that start with a hug, and amble past waffles and puns about waffles and planting up daisies and watering blueberries. Days when the humdrum’s a pleasure and there’s time to sit at the kitchen table, painting pictures of dogs and flowers and bumblebees with someone whose hands still have dimples and whose hair smells of sun.

There have been other days when time has felt so relentlessly monochrome and straight-line-real that I’ve wished I could fold it in two like paper and go back to the start: do one thing, anything, just different enough to change the unchangeable – days when I’ve felt furious with grief that I can’t do the single, simple thing of building my own time machine.

And then there are honey, mellow days when time gathers, clusters and disperses like swallows. Days when the bright green of the grass shouts from the trees’ deep shadows and blackbirds trill unseen in the clear blue sky on a late afternoon forest walk. Days when it’s clear that this warm hour is exactly the same one I’ve walked through hundreds of times before and the leaves of the slender, keen birches are the same ones that thousands of other people have watched move slowly through the same warm air; days when it’s clear that time isn’t solid and linear, but something that hangs poised above and behind and beyond us, and walks hand in hand with us in circles.

So if you’re thinking of the best day of your life, don’t think of the weddings and births, the parties and promotions, think of a sunny day when you folded washing, made scones and were solemnly presented with a painting of an orange dog to keep by your bed.

Makes about 16

2-4 sticks of rhubarb (I used four, but they were splindly ones from the garden)

1 tablespoon light brown sugar

2 tablespoons of water

2 tablespooons of custard powder

Enough plain flour that, added to the custard powder, makes 500g (about 460g)

75g cold butter

2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda

150ml Greek yoghurt, 150ml whole milk (I don’t ever have normal plain yoghurt in the house as I find it too runny – or too soupy, as Bert would say. If you do, use 200ml yoghurt to 100ml of milk)

1 egg, beaten

Heat the oven to 200. Cut the rhubarb up into pieces about 1cm long (they’ll be the raisins in your scones, so don’t make the pieces too big), put the pieces in a roasting tray, sprinkle over the sugar and water, cover with foil and cook for around 10 minutes. Keep the oven on after you take them out.

Meanwhile weigh out the custard powder and flour to a combined total of 500g (two tablespoons of custard powder first, then add the flour till it weighs 500g). Cut the butter into very small pieces and then ‘crumb’ it – rub it between finger and thumb if you like, but I believe scones don’t like to be touched by human hand till they come out of the oven, so I cut the butter into tiny pieces with a knife, then put the flour and butter in the food mixer till it’s crumbed. Add the bicarb.

Remove the rhubarb with a slotted spoon and add the pieces to the mixing bowl with the yoghurt and milk mix. Mix briefly, till it’s just forming a dough.

Flour a surface and quickly press the dough down onto it. Don’t use a rolling pin, just gently press it out with your fingers till it’s about 4cm thick. Cut out circles with a small cutter – I use a champagne flute, not because I always have a glass of champagne to hand (maybe one day), but because it’s the right size to make a scone that’s taller than it is wide – i.e. correct.

Put on a baking tray, quickly brush with beaten egg and into the oven for about 12 minutes, till golden.