Cherry and orange individual Bakewell tarts

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I was lucky enough to escape some of the brutal shocks to our identity and sanity that new parenthood can bring. My hobbies were already pretty sedendary. I didn’t socialise wildly or travel the world (except for work, when I was paid to be that type of person, which helpfully got it out of my system): I wrote or read blogs, wrote or read books, cooked or ate food, or just sat on a sofa and stared at the wall. Of course, all of these are totally compatible with parenthood, particularly the latter.

Bert wasn’t early to sleep through, but when he did he really went for it, with 3-hour naps and 14 hours at bedtime. One Christmas he woke up at 11am and greeted me with  ‘hello gorgeous’. For at least three years I’ve been getting enough sleep to wipe away the smear of tiredness and let the glimmer of small joys shine through.

So even though parenting this particular toddler wasn’t especially hard (well, no harder than having someone shouting mum a hundred times in a minute then pooing on a new speaker has to be), I did think that parenting a school age child would be easier. The age of toileting accidents over. Five days a week to fit work into, with no guilt since he has to be at school. Near-rational conversations. Walking to school.

How wrong I was. What I hadn’t taken into account was the emotional grind of tiny friendships formed and smashed up, piles of ‘optional’ homework that’s nevertheless chased for and rewarded with achievement stickers, the incomprehensible mind-grenade that is the phonics system and the need to get him through next year’s exam so he won’t have to resit it. And the near daily additions to my to-do list that arrive by email – put a pound in a named envelope, dress them in spots and odd socks, sign up to contribute to the Christmas hamper, send in charity money, return library books, fill in a form so they don’t miss out on the school Christmas lunch.

Or make cakes for the Christmas fair. These are a tiny bit of a faff, but delicious, and at last count there were at least 12 left to be dropped off this afternoon.

Makes 20 tarts

2 x 225g sheets ready-made shortcrust pastry

Dark cherry jam, about 20 teaspoons

120g soft butter

120g golden caster sugar

1/2 teaspoon orange essence

1 egg

1 tablespoon plain flour

110g ground almonds

400g icing sugar

4-5 tablespoons water

10 dark glace cherries

Pre-heat the oven to 180/ 170 fan. Lightly grease a muffin tin.

Cut  circles out of the pastry – about 8-10cm diameter – and then line the muffin holes with them, smoothing out any creases. (I had a 12 hole tin, so did two batches.) Crumple up 10cm square pieces of greaseproof (just cut up the paper in the pastry packets), uncrumple and put one on top of each pastry case, weighing down with baking beans or dried pulses. Bake for 10 minutes, take the paper out then bake for another 8-10 minutes, till golden. (I’m a keen but lazy cook and often miss this stage out, but it’s what makes these little tarts soft on the inside but buttery and crunchy on the outside, so worth doing.)

Take them out and let them cool a little. Meanwhile, beat together the butter, sugar and orange essence. Add the egg and flour and then the almonds. Spread a little jam on the bottom of each pastry case, then a generous teaspoon of almond mixture (it rises a little in the oven and ideally you want to see the pastry case around it, so don’t be tempted to over-fill.) Bake for 20 minutes, till risen and golden.

When the tarts are cool, mix the icing sugar and water together and spread a generous teapoon on top of each tart. Top with half a glace cherry. (These would also be good for Red Nose Day.) Protect from scavengers.

 

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Manchego and rosemary scones

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Wednesday’s are still scone day!

Bert’s done nearly two full weeks at school and it’s been a roller-coaster. He loves it, he’s exhausted, he’s been told off for trying to scale a fence (either to escape or to impress a girl, it’s not clear), neither Mrs Green nor Mr Green are, infuriatingly, green, he’s cried just out of sight of the school gates, he’s rejected my idea of me kissing a stone for him to keep in his pocket (‘erm, it’s just a stone!’) but asks for a kiss on each cheek to keep all day when I drop him off.

This morning he complained he was ‘so tired’; not because of school, but because he gets up in the night to play.

There’s really only one answer to that, as the doctor says to the patient who complains his arm hurts when he lifts it.

Makes around 10 small scones

225g self-raising flour

55g cold butter

45g finely grated Manchego (Cheddar would obviously work just as well)

1 teaspoon dried rosemary

Pinch of salt

150ml pouring yoghurt (or half and half milk/ plain yoghurt)

Flour for dusting

Beaten egg or milk to glaze

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Crumb the butter and flour, between finger and thumb or in a mixer. Add the cheese, rosemary and salt, and stir to distribute evenly. Pour in the yoghurt and quickly bring together into a wet dough with a knife. Tip onto a floured surface as soon as it’s together and press down gently, to about 3-4cm deep. (The less you touch scone mixture, the better.) Cut out rounds and place on a floured baking tray. Brush the top with egg or milk and into the oven for around 15 minutes, till golden brown. Serve warm, buttered.

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.

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.

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?

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.

 

Chocolate birthday cake

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When I asked Bert what birthday cake he wanted, he said a Paw Patrol Lookout Tower. (For those who don’t spend 2 hours 20 minutes a day watching, it’s a tower on a tripod base, with a glass-sided look-out room, topped by a periscope, with a helter-skelter slide.) Thanks for the confidence vote, Bert, but your ambitions are not matched by my skills. So I made a cake in the shape of a bowl of dog food. Luckily my skills were not enough to make it look disturbingly (to his friends’ parents) realistic.

This isn’t my recipe but I did find an excellent one for a decent-tasting cake that’s also easy to shape (without crumbling) and ice with fondant icing. I’m recording it here for future years – one day, this will be the basis of a vast, chocolate flavoured Millenium Falcon and my life will truly have been worth living.

Makes a 20cm cake

Cake:

200g self-raising flour

40g cocoa powder (not drinking chocolate)

230g caster sugar

4 large eggs

230g soft, unsalted butter

¼ tsp vanilla extract

100g milk chocolate, grated (choose something from the baking aisle in the supermarket as it will cope well with the heat in the oven without going grainy)

2 tsp milk

Icing:

400g chocolate buttercream icing

500g ready to roll fondant icing (but only for a child’s, themed birthday cake – the stuff is truly disgusting)

Pre-heat the oven to 160/ 140 fan.

Mix all the cake ingredients till well-combined, then spoon into two lined and greased 20cm cake tins. Cook for 30 minutes in the centre of the oven. Check with a skewer – if it comes out of the middle clean then they’re done. If not, put them in for another 5 minutes.

Cool for 10 minutes in the tin then 10 minutes on a wire tray, then put in the fridge for a couple of hours if you’re going to shape and fondant-ice them.

Sandwich the cakes with buttercream (shape the top one into a dog bowl with tapered edges and a circular hollow in the top if you wish) and then cover with more buttercream. Roll out the icing to about 2-3mm thick (using icing sugar or cornflour to stop it sticking) and drape over the cake. If you’re going full Paw Patrol, fill the top with Maltesers and decorate with sugar dog bones and paw prints. (I stuck each Malteser down with a dab of buttercream, but by then I’d moved into The Zone – I also cut sandwiches into bone shapes and made bone-shaped cheese biscuits.)

Recall that blue food dye appears to be like a hallucinagenic drug to small children (the first time Bert ate something this colour he started to see monkeys everywhere), slice, feed small children multiple packets of Haribo and send them home with a plastic whistle. Job done!