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Chilli balls

When I started this blog, Bert was a great eater. Now he declares anything in a sauce, cooked in a sauce then fished out, sitting near a sauce, as ‘soupy’.

I was prepared for a veg avoider but not a soup avoider.

This may be my most niche recipe yet, but if you fancy a soupy chilli and your child is a sauce avoider, try these. Then make a normal chilli for all the sane people in the room.

Or cook up a bigger batch in tomato sauce and serve with rice, grated Cheddar cheese, sour cream and guacamole. (Naked, soupless balls also being available.)

Makes 6 meatballs

60g minced beef

20g red kidney beans, mashed with a fork.

10g finely grated cheddar

10g finely grated carrot

Pinch each of ground cinnamon, ground cumin, cayenne pepper, salt

Preheat the oven to 180. Mix all the ingredients together and form into walnut-sized balls. Bake on a baking sheet for 20 minutes. Serve with rice, broccoli (and soupy guacamole if you dare).

Strawberry shortcake pudding


When you fancy strawberry shortcake but can’t be arsed to make it. This has the same soft, vanilla crumb and berry sweetness but takes 10 minutes to prepare and 10 seconds to finish off out of the oven.

Bert declared this ‘not a birthday cake: a normal cake’.

It’s my birthday tomorrow. On his way out this afternoon Bert’s dad asked me if we needed any food. 

Me: you might need chocolate? Self-raising flour? Candles?

Him: blank face

Leftover normal cake it is then.

Serves 4-6 (ahem. Ok. Three)

6 tablespoons soft butter

1 measuring cup caster sugar

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract 

1.5 teaspoons baking powder

1.5 measuring cups plain flour

1/2 measuring cup milk 

1 punnet strawberries

1 tablespoon icing sugar

Preheat the oven to 180.

Beat the sugar and butter together till fluffy then add the egg and vanilla and beat again. Mix through the flour, baking powder and milk till you have a smooth, thick batter then tip into a deep, buttered pie dish and smooth out the top. Top with the hulled and halved strawberries and bake for about an hour (check after 50 minutes – it’s ready when it’s deep golden brown and coming away from the sides). 

Dust with sieved icing sugar and serve warm with thick cream.

Plum and ginger crumble


I left for a two-day work trip before Bert finished pre-school on Monday. So I wrote a note for him – ‘I love you, gorgeous Bert, love from Mum xxx’. I drew a roaring dinosaur, folded it in half, wrote his name on the front and secured it in the jaws of the dinosaur on his bedside table. 

The trip was fine but today was a true sod. Bert woke me up at 5 and stayed awake. I had two big, stressful arguments. I dropped and broke the phone I bought yesterday. I had a reprimanding email from a client about something relatively small, which I found excruciating. Pudding was a disaster.  (We had this crumble a few days ago and it was delicious – but if anyone wants the recipe for black tarte tatin, I’m happy to share.)

I got in the bath at Bert’s bedtime and he called me back to clear up a poo. I got back in and almost straight away he called for me again.

When I opened his door he was clunching my note in his hand. It was folded over and over and crumpled up. He held it out. 

‘Do you want me to straighten it?’ I said, reaching for it. 

‘No,’ he said, ‘I want you to throw it in the bin.’

‘Why?’

‘I don’t like the words.’

‘The words I wrote?’ 

‘Read then to me,’ he said.

I read it out.

‘I don’t like the words. Throw it in the bin.’

I obediently put it in the bin and found another reason to cry a bit later. 

But at least he still falls gorgeously and hotly asleep on me and lets me eat most of the crumble.

Serves six

1 punnet of plums, cored and chopped into eight or so pieces each

2 tablespoons soft brown sugar

6 or 8 cubes of crystallized ginger, chopped up into smaller pieces

 230g plain flour

40g bran

115g butter, cold and in small pieces

90g soft brown sugar

Level teaspoon ground ginger

Put the plums in a pan with 2 tablespoons of sugar and the chopped, crystallised ginger, and cook on a low heat on the hob while you prepare the crumble topping. Pre heat the oven to 200/ gas mark six.

Breadcrumb the flour and butter, by rubbing between your fingers or pulsing in a food processor. Stir through the sugar, bran and ground ginger. By now the plums should be starting to soften. Tip them into an ovenproof dish, cover with crumble topping and bake for 30 minutes, till the fruit is bubbling up round the edges.

 

Citrus and almond cake 

When Bert was a tiny newborn, me and his dad had a conversation about what we wanted for him. His dad looked wistfully into the air and I gazed pensively at my hands.

‘I want him to drive a sports car to France!’ he said and simultaneously I said, ‘I want him to be kind!’ We looked at each other in utter bemusement and moved on.

Given the extent of Bert’s deadpan, patronising backseat driving (me: ‘oh God, this is the only place to park. How will I get out?’ Him, briefly glancing up: ‘I think you’ll have to reverse, maybe’) and the fact he’s attacking me in this picture, maybe his father’s wish will be granted first.

We had breaded fish (home made) and chips (not home made) for dinner. Bert pointed at the fish and said, dismissively, ‘I not like that.’ His dad said, ‘Mum spent ages making that’ (ten minutes, actually, but the support was appreciated), ‘remember when you made some cakes. How would you have felt if we said we didn’t like them? Maybe sad. Maybe Mum might feel sad too.’ Bert looked at his fish thoughtfully and said ‘yessss.’

We had this cake for pudding. Bert said, ‘can I have more orange cake? It lovely.’ Twice. It was a good cake. But maybe he’s got a bit of kindness bubbling away in there after all.

Bert’s dad read him bedtime stories while I had a bath. I would have had my boy’s head on the pillow sooner. But his dad got deep, gurgling belly laughs out of him. 

Lets at least make it a hybrid, shall we Bert?

Makes a 21cm cake 

2 clementines, 1 lime, 1 lemon

250g caster sugar

6 eggs

250g ground almonds

1 heaped teaspoon baking powder 

Put the fruit in a saucepan, cover with cold water, put on a lid and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for 2 hours.

Then heat the oven to gas mark 5/ 190 degrees and grease a 21cm round, loose bottomed tin. Purée the fruit and beat together with the remaining ingredients. Pour into the tin and bake for about an hour, till the top’s a deep golden brown and the cake’s coming away from the tin at the edges. 

We had it warm with cream. 

24-hour aromatic pork

Recipes are like wormholes, sucking you to another space and time. I write this at ten o’clock at night, the smell of aromatic pork filling the house, because two days ago Bert’s dad asked me what my signature dish was.

’24-hour pork!’ I said, as if it was obvious, then we both realised that even though I’ve known him for ten years I’ve never cooked it for him.

When I used to cook this I was in my early thirties, living in a small house in East London, working in a job I sort of enjoyed, sort of disliked, and leading a – relatively to now – life of modest affluence and freedom. I owned a house, on my own, in London, with leftover cash to put new floors in and buy new dresses! Every year I’d throw a house party and cook this. If friends came over I’d cook this. Life was good, but it was marbled through with seams of anxiety. I was managing a design company. (I so, so wanted to be a writer, but it seemed absurdly arrogant to say so, even to myself, on my own, in the dark, in a bedroom in Hackney with a new floor.) I was single; I’d have children at some point. (I so, so much wanted to be a mother that it was written all the way through me in sugar capitals.) The route from one place and time to another seemed impossible, unpassable; invisible, even.

Fold the pages of time together and here I am, poorer, less free, but there are deep veins of contentment running through my days that I had no idea of then.

There’s pork in the oven for tomorrow. And Bert will hate it.

Probably serves 10-12, we’ll be eating leftovers for days and days

1 whole shoulder of pork (less and it may dry out)

1 tablespoon sunflower oil

1/2 tablespoon sea salt

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon brown sugar

5 garlic cloves, crushed

‘Thumb-sized’ (of course!) piece of fresh ginger, grated

1 tablespoon Chinese five-spice

Get the oven as hot as it will go (230/ gas mark 8 or 9). Mix all the ingredients, except the pork, together in a small bowl. Spread half of the spice mix on top of the pork and place the meat on a rack on top of a roasting tin. Put in the hot oven for half an hour then take it out, turn it over to skin side down and smear on the rest of the spice mix. Pour in a small glass of water, turn the oven down as low as it will go (gas mark 1/4) and cook for 16 – 24 hours (my kind of margin of error). Then take out of the oven, whack the heat back up, turn it back to skin side up and blast at 230/ gas 8 or 9 for half an hour, checking to make sure it doesn’t burn.

Serve with mash and greens.

Chocolate-orange iced cake

On a nondescript day in February 2016 I stood in some woods with two sniffing couples and watched a tiny coffin being lowered into the ground. The previous afternoon I’d sat on my own in a hospital room holding, in one hand, a small, fragile, fledging-like boy. Perfect, to me, but not perfect enough to make it. I felt suffused with love that day in the hospital and the next day in the woods I felt full of huge, wordless, serrated sadness. People told me that at least I had Bert and that that should be a comfort. But while I knew what they meant, it wasn’t a comfort – because this was a different child, wasn’t it? And I wanted him with me too. For the next two weeks I slept with the small, knitted square the hospital had given me clutched to my stomach.

The fledgling boy came and went and what I got instead of him was a mixed up mess of grief and objectless love and the odd feeling that I’m wiser, even though I couldn’t really tell you a single thing I’m wiser about. 

Today me and Bert made a 17th birthday cake for Bert’s older half-brother, Ben. Bert did the measuring and egg breaking and mixing, and decided that we didn’t need to sieve the icing sugar. It’s a wonky muddle of lopsided cake and lumpy icing. But it’s beautiful to me.

Makes a 20cm cake

For the cake:

300g self raising flour

300g golden caster sugar

1.5 teaspoons baking powder

Half a teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

225g softened butter

3 eggs

3 teaspoons vanilla extract

225ml sour cream

100g good quality white chocolate, bashed to splinters with a rolling pin
For the icing:

75g butter

175g good quality orange dark chocolate 

300g icing sugar
1 tablespoon golden syrup

125ml sour cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Beat all the ingredients for the cake together, folding in the chocolate at the last minute. If you’re a better woman than I am, do it the proper way, beating together the butter and sugar, gradually adding the eggs and then the flour. I bung it all in a food mixer.

Divide between two greased and lined 20cm tins and bake at 180 (gas mark 4) for 35-45 minutes, till golden and springy to the touch.

For the icing, melt together the butter and chocolate, add the vanilla, cream and syrup and then sieve in the sugar and beat to combine. Ice the cake when it’s cold and the icing has cooled.

Apple and blackberry toffee crumble 


Last time Bert cooked I had high hopes that he’d eat every mouthful. I helped him grate the courgette into the pea and bacon risotto chortling to myself about the thought of him eating it greedily. He took a single mouthful and flatly pronounced it ‘gusting’.

This went a bit better. 

Enough for 6 (I was cooking for two)

2 cooking apples, peeled, cored and thickly sliced

1 tablespoons dark brown sugar

1 tablespoon butter

As many blackberries as you can pick – we had about four big handfuls

1 tablespoon golden caster sugar

230g plain flour

115g butter, cold and in small pieces

50g golden caster sugar

40g brown sugar

Level teaspoon ground ginger

40g jumbo oats

Melt the first lot of butter and brown sugar, drop the apples in the pan, toss in the toffee sauce and cook gently on the hob for 5-10 minutes, till the apples are starting to soften. Add the blackberries and first lot of caster sugar. 

Preheat the oven to gas mark 4/ 180.

Put the flour and remaining butter into the bowl of a food processor and pulse till crumbed (or rub between fingers and thumbs to crumb by hand). Stir through the remaining sugars, ginger and oats. 

Pour the fruit into an ovenproof dish, top with crumble and cook for about half an hour, till golden. Serve drowned in cream

Slow-cooked ribs


What to cook when your toddler imperiously demands a roast and it’s just the two of you for dinner.

Serves 2-3

450g pork ribs

Drizzle olive oil

Dessert spoon golden caster sugar

Salt

Pepper

Pre heat the oven to gas mark 3/ 160 degrees. Put the ribs in a smallish roasting tin, drizzle with oil, sprinkle with sugar, season generously. Put in the oven for 3 hours, by which time they’ll be tender in a he inside and crisp and chewy on the outside.

Sticky ribs


Since February, Bert’s been going to the pre-school attached to our local primary two days a week and the nursery he’s been at since he was 10 months old for one day a week. He’s always gone in fine but claims to have no friends there (other than a mysterious girl called ‘Bert’). It’s a lovely place – a bit more formal and school-like than his old nursery, but brilliant in lots of ways and they made him very welcome. Even though he’s consistently said he preferred the old place, we put that down to it being so much more familiar. The logic was that starting at the local pre-school would make it far easier for him to settle at primary school next September. This September he’s due to have all of his three days at the new place – they’re so booked up that they didn’t have the third day available till now. Not only is it lovely but it’s a walk rather than a drive away, the day’s slightly longer, finishing at 4.30, so I get more work done, and it’s cheaper. I’d walk the dog there and back with Bert, giving me a full, uninterrupted eight hours to work. Win win win.

However. Even though he’s perfectly settled at the new place, he’ll still tell me that he likes the old one better. On a nursery day he’d ask which it was and, if it was an ‘old school’ day, he’d cheer and say ‘thanks, Mum!’ When he rang his dad at work and told him, very seriously, that he preferred ‘old school’ I began to wonder if we just weren’t listening. This coincided with the day they painted his nails bright pink, a sweet thing that was nothing to do with Learning Journeys and which he really loved, and him making all kinds of new friends there – he’d come home and tell me about the new friend he’d made most days (and none were girls called Bert). The second I sent the ‘old school’ an email confirming that he’d be leaving I started to have doubts. Why weren’t we listening to him? If he really preferred the old place that much, maybe their learning style of free play and creativity just suited him better. Weren’t there years and years for him to get used to more a formal way of learning? If anything, I think children are forced to start that too soon at five. I asked him again which he preferred and asked if he could pick one, which he’d choose. No hesitation – old school.

Many long conversations with his dad later, I did the deed and arranged for him not to go back to ‘new school’ for the start of the new term in September and to do all three days a week at ‘old school’ instead. Heart-warmingly, ‘old school’ were thrilled – three members of staff came up to me to tell me how excited and happy they were.

I gave Bert the good news when I picked him up. His lip wobbled. ‘But I like new school! I like new school better now!’ he said and literally stamped his feet.

Today I drove him to ‘old school’ and he looked out of the window and casually said, ‘you’re going the wrong way.’ ‘Huh?’ I said, though Bert is not averse to a bit of patronising back-seat driving. ‘New school’s that way,’ he pointed, accurately, and went back to his iPad.

This is a BBC Good Foods recipe. You can double the quantity of ribs with the same amount of marinade.

Serves 3-4

500g passata

2 cloves garlic, crushed

2 tablespooons soy sauce

3 tablespoons honey

1 tablespoon Worcester sauce

500g pork ribs

Combine all the ingredients and cook in a baking tray, covered in foil, at gas mark 6 (200 degree) for 30 minutes, then bake for another hour. We had ours with egg fried rice.