Thursday, 19 March 2015

Bircher museli for Charlie Potter



I had a very nice email recently from a reader seeking advice. My favourite kind of reader email, really - actually asking my opinion. It gives me licence to take a deep breath and just go on and on and on about what I think, which is the state in which I am happiest, as long-time readers of this blog will know.

Anyway the email went "Shall I take my 2 year old on a 7 hour flight to Montreal?" And my answer, which ran to several hundred words, was: "No." I guessed that if she was even asking me, she was really looking for a "no" answer anyway, she just wanted it validated by a dispassionate third party.

As I was writing my reply to her, hammering away at my keyboard (I do not type in a tapetty tappetty tap way, I HAMMMER THE FUCKING KEYS LIKE THEY HAVE DONE SOMETHING BAD - I always used to get complaints at work about it) some things became clear to me.

I ended up writing this paragraph:

"I’ve always felt like I had my whole life up until having kids to travel and fuck about and do whatever I want, and it’s not long now until my kids can both travel and appreciate the ride and have a good time. 

I don’t understand why some people *insist* that children shouldn’t slow you down and root you a bit. Why not? Why can’t we all just be still for a few years and then take off round the world and be wild and crazy once everyone’s a bit more grown-up? I find the pressure to continue on as you always did after you’ve had kids very oppressive and it pisses me off."

I didn't know that that's what I thought until I wrote that down, but now I realise that this is exactly what I think. I am probably over-sensitive to it, but I do feel under pressure to carry on as if I haven't had kids and it properly fucks me off. It's the thing I encounter most often that makes me most angry. Because the fact is that although my children are perfectly alright, I do not find them relaxing company. I cannot just drag them about with me and get drunk and not care and let them run wild because within moments Sam will have fallen down hard against something and there will be blood. Kitty will have found a pair of scissors. It's not relaxing, I don't like it, don't make me do it.

I recall my friend Max, who I think occasionally reads this from California where he now lives, declaring that he and his wife do not drink when they are in charge of the kids because if they were to let go in such a way, their children would be found "covered in nettle stings, being eaten by wasps". They are modern, cool and thoughtful parents and I have clutched this statement to me, like the Gollum with his ring, since hearing it.

There is a little saying that my husband once heard and was impressed by, which goes "don't compare the inside of your life with the outside of other people's". This works in two ways: first, don't think that other people are having a better time than you from what you can superficially deduce. Second: other people have a different experience of life from you, they are different people, they make it work in their own way.

Once upon a time it was people who wanted their children to stay up late, to be free and relaxed and hippyish about everything who were on the margins, who were looked down on by other, stricter parents. Now I feel like it's the hippies who are taking over the world and those of us who choose not to go raving with our kids or bithely take them on very long flights or move across the world with toddlers or go sail across the world with them or whatever, are the ones who are judged. I say that's how I feel, but I am obviously the world's most defensive and paranoid person, so maybe just forget I spoke.

Now: bircher museli. I don't really know how the cropped up in the world or where it's from or what it means but I think Donna Hay (also a mystery to me) has had a lot to do with it.

What you do is soak oats in apple juice overnight and then apply all manner of exotic mixings and toppings to it and then you eat it in the morning and find it freaking delicious.

The huge benefit of this is that in the morning you don't even so much as have to get a bowl down for your breakfast, you just remove the pot of museli from the fridge, get a spoon and dive in. I did think that the application of apple juice to oats in a domestic context would be rather revolting but in fact you don't especially taste the apple juice (I used really basic kids' plastic apple juice from Waitrose) and it softens the oats and makes them all, just... completely delicious basically.

Anyway this is a very basic recipe for a bircher muesli, for a really echt one I think you are supposed to add grated apple, but I don't want to grate apple in the morning and I'm not sure if you add it the night before that it might not go brown and unappealing. I think it might be okay, but I've got a few experiements still to do with this.

Alright so:

1 glass
about 2 tbsp oats
enough apple juice to just cover the oats
probably 3 large dollops of plain yoghurt
maybe 1 tbsp of granola to cover the top
some runny honey to drizzle over the top

1 Layer the oats, juice, yoghurt, granola and honey on top of one another in a fetching glass last thing at night
2 stretch some cling film or foil over the top and put in the fridge
3 go to bed
4 get up, get your muesli out of the fridge and eat it

This post is dedicated to Charlie Potter, who is, apart from my husband, the best man to sit next to at a dinner party because he is very interesting and chatty and lively and asks your opinion about things.

This is very rare. If you are a girl, you often find that men at dinner parties (or anywhere else) don't ask you what you think because they don't give a fuck and they don't laugh at your jokes because they don't think you're funny. Charlie always laughs at my jokes and said to me once: "I don't know... what do you think?" and I was so stunned and taken aback at being asked that I missed my opportunity to let go and have a massive rant and probably let myself down rather.

Anyway Charlie does some job and works hard and I imagine often doesn't get time for breakfast, so this recipe is particularly appropriate for him. 

Monday, 16 March 2015

Courgetti and bolognese



Now that my kids are set square on the path of growing up, we are none of us stuck in a non-speaking, non-walking hell, no-one is pregnant, no-one is postpartum, I can feel myself regressing, going backwards, getting younger.

When you have a baby you explode outwards. Sometimes quite literally. But also metaphorically. All your stuff explodes outwards. Your neuroses, your anxieties, your life, your everything goes KAPOW out into the world. Everyone talks about you and what you are doing. Everyone compares notes going "She's really freaking out," or "She's really bossing it," or "She's just so relaxed!" or "She's just SO uptight." None of it is complimentary - not really. It's all a total diss. Even if you are doing well, everyone with more or older kids will look at each other and transmit via ESP those awful, awful words that we have all thought: "You just fucking wait." Yes it's all fine now but wait until you've all got pneumonia. Or until your husband goes away for 3 months. Or until your eldest turns into a horrible bully and constantly pronks kids over the head at nursery all the other mums hate you.

You are so exposed when you have a baby - any baby, no matter what number it is, no matter what you do with it, no matter what it's like. It's like airing your dirty laundry every time you so much as take the buggy up the road to post a sodding letter.

But now... now I feel it's all being sucked back in. Sometimes quite literally what with my weight having gradually, like a feather floating down to the ground on the lightest of breezes, settled back to normal (though I doubt I will ever escape that feeling of everything being too tight round my middle). I feel smaller, lighter, more youthful. I don't think this change is visible to the naked eye - I think to everyone else I still seem the same careworn, knackered, grumpy old mum in crappy Aasics trainers and mostly shit hair. To my husband I still seem the same neurotic bag of nerves, to my children I am the same snappy, capricious lunatic. But I don't feel so old anymore. I don't feel so explody-outwards any more. I feel more private, I feel less like the Ancient Mariner, compelled to grab the nearest person and tell them how awful my life is, how totally up shit creek I am, how every aspect of motherhood and wifehood is impossible.

The downside of this is that I don't really feel like I have very much to say any more. But the upsides are many and varied.

For example, the other morning I didn't have anything to do. For the first time in many years - no work, no admin, no housework. My husband always says that when you have nothing to do you must try as best you can to enjoy it because any moment now the sky will fall on your head.

So I took his advice and decided, as it was a sunny day, to go for a walk on the Heath. I would go for a really long one, I thought, just miles and miles and miles and get lost like I used to before I had kids. So I walked and walked and then I discovered that when I walk for a long time - like over 10 minutes - without a buggy to push and lean on, I get a cracking lower back pain. By the time I had gone over Parliament Hill and reached Swain's Lane I was actually quite stiff.

I immediately rang my friend M- who lives nearby, to beg her for tea and a sit down. "I am off my face on diazepam" she said.

"Ok." I said. "Are you having a nervous breakdown?" "No it's my back," she replied, as if she were some sort of cipher, or avatar, some kind of alternative me.
"Come round though!" she said. "But we will have to talk in my bedroom."

I went round and there she was, resplendent in bed, bra-less in some sort of magnificent kaftan. The curtains were half-drawn and she had the day before spilled some very dusky Serge Lutens scent on the floorboards so the place was reminiscent of a restrained opium den. I sat on the nursing glider in the corner and we talked about our periods for an hour, having the sort of free and frank gross-out conversation that I cannot remember having for ages. Not for years. It felt more like bunking off at school than bunking off at school ever did. (Not that I ever really bunked off properly, you understand - being such a craven shitty little square.)

It was the most genuinely young I have felt in a long time. I wasn't worn down by that nagging sensation that I always get in the back of my mind whenever there is a baby somewhere needing to be worried about.

It is with this youthful zest for novelty and excitement that drew me, when I returned home, to unpack a "courgetti"-maker that my husband brought back for me from America last year.

I'm very late to courgetti, though I've always thought it looked like a perfectly good idea - you use a machine (or just a sharp knife and a lot of patience) to cut courgettes into very thin strips, which you then use as a sort of spaghetti substitute in order to banish yet more evil carbohydrate from your life.

We had it the other night with bolognese sauce, which I haven't eaten enough of in the recent past as I am so terrified of pasta, and it was terrific.

I followed the Hemsley sisters' instructions with the courgetti, which was to sauté it in a lot of butter for 3 minutes before serving, which worked very well. Do use a timer for this because 3 minutes is longer than you think it is.

We ate this with a bolognese sauce, which I won't give you a recipe for because if you don't know how to make a bolognese sauce by now then I just can't help you.



Thursday, 5 March 2015

Recipe Rifle goes shopping: Spring Fashion

The problem with all fashion, no matter who you are or what you do, is trying to make it work for you - for who you are and what your life is like.

There are also levels of fashionability. I simply do not have the kind of personality that goes well with high fashion. I'm just too much of an awful piss-taker to go about in a neon scuba top and a hat. But I also think it is important to change the way that you look, to modernise. You know all this. I've written about it before.

My particular problem with any kind of fashion, any year, wherever I am is that is has to be practical. It just does. I cannot wear slithery dry-clean only fabrics because they will attract butter and Marmite stains out of thin air. I cannot wear heels because there is enough discomfort in my life without adding sore feet to it. (And often I will need to break into a run - or at least a fast trot - at short notice.)

I also cannot wear mini - or even shortish - skirts because I do a lot of bending and sitting on the floor and I do not want to show everyone my knickers. But I also cannot wear maxi skirts because I will trip over them or get them caught in buggy wheels or they will just generally get tangled up in my legs and drive me fucking nuts.

So what oh what is the solution? Last summer I spent the whole thing in shorts, boyfriend jeans and Birkenstocks. It worked fine, it was all extremely practical and washable and I was pleased with how it went. It wasn't a very "pretty" look but I wasn't feeling especially pretty, what with my husband out of the country for weeks on end and Sam a) not walking and b) crying all the time.

Anyway I've been spending some time thinking about this because when I think about World Debt it doesn't get me anywhere. These are the results of my thoughts about spring fashion.

For my feet I have invested in a pair of clogs by Lotta from Stockholm, recommended to me by @emfrid, a friend of this blog, whom many of you know and admire. I got the pair with the lowest possible heel with a closed toe so that groomed feet are not essential. I say "invest" - they are only £56.60. Apologies for hilariously small picture ripped off their website.... for a closer look see lottafromstockholm.co.uk.

I know what you are thinking... you are thinking "clogs... clunky... unflattering... noisy... actually in fact not that comfortable?" All this is wrong. They are perfectly flattering - in as far as "ugly shoes" can be flattering - no more or less flattering than a pair of Birkies, they are light, not heavy, have a ridged rubberised sole - perfectly okay for breaking out into a light trot but possibly not an emergency dash. And they go with everything - with jeans, with skirts, with shorts - everything. They would even go with a tight leather skirt. I recommend them to you! Plus, their customer service is absolutely outstanding.



I also got a pair of white trainers by Superga, £45. Converse are over. Give yours to a charity shop.



In terms of jeans, I will still be wearing my Acne boyfriends from last year because they are just so freaking comfy but I have also got a pair of ripped-at-the-knee Leigh jeans from TopShop (£40) because I like the fact that because of the rip, there is no straining at the knee and they don't go baggy. I can't abide a baggy knee.



Absolutely everyone takes the piss out of me for these, even Humphrey, who is 4 years old, and a friend of Kitty's from nursery: "WHY HAVE YOU GOT HOLES IN YOUR TROUSERS?" he said the other day. "IT'S FASHION, HUMPHREY," I barked back. He seemed satisfied with that answer. My dad took the living piss, too, but then I lectured him about modernism and he looked amused and then subdued. Anyway I will be having the last laugh come Spring when everyone is scrambling for a pair and they've sold out - even in my dad's size.

I also freaked out the other day in Hennes and bought a pair of low-waisted bootcut jeans. YES I KNOW!!!!!!!! They're so out of fashion that they're back in again. I don't want to do flares because see above in terms of practicality but if you think back to 1996, boot cuts are basically in between straightleg and flares. It's a nod to the flare without the full-on commitment, which is the story of my life. I don't really suit skinny jeans - it's not that my legs are fat, it's that my calves are too skinny and without the balancing-out effect of a slight flare towards my foot my legs look horribly sausagey. I've been walking around with these sausagey legs for years now thanks to the hateful skinny obsession. So I am happy as a clam that bootcuts might be on the way back in. These are on sale for £15.



I have been wearing the same white knee-length cotton summer dress for 6 years now and I love it and will still be wearing it this summer (with clogs or white Supergas, do you see what I am getting at here?). You have a similar dress skanking about in the back of your wardrobe right now, I'll bet. Dig it out. But I could do with another summer dress, so I got this thing off Asos for £22. Crucially it is machine-washable, patterned (so's to hide all that marmite) and long enough so that I can sit cross-legged at a picnic without anyone having to have memory-replacement therapy.



It is also FLORAL and FLORAL is big this summer. At least so says Dolce & Gabbana in their hateful La Mamma Mia show or whatever it was called where the models all bounced around with toddlers and babies. I don't know why this show made me angry but it did. I think it was something to do with the propagation of the "sexy mama" myth. Italian mothers have a million black-clad fat Nonnas in the kitchen who do all the heavy-lifting with the kids so that their "sexy mamas" can go back to sipping espresso and dancing across palazzos in their stupid mini floral dresses and impractical sandals!!!! We do not live like that in this country and I am furious about it!

Another completely easy-wear item that will drag you instantly into SS15 is a denim shirt. Just get one. Do not worry that it is boring or that you will look like everyone else - it's a lifesaver. You can wear it on its own or worn open like a very thin jacket over a t-shirt or a dress or something. The best ones are from J Crew (Keeper Chambray shirt below, £78). On warm days you must roll the sleeves right up above the elbow in the American style, not below the elbow in the British way. It's all about detail, friends.



Last of all - the spring jacket! I resisted the pink/yellow/bright coat trend because I just thought I'd look a dickhead, but I fell in love with this jacket from Zara, £59.99. I didn't mean to! It wasn't anyone's fault! It just happened. This is great if you, like me, have got broad shoulders. Jackets don't do terribly well on me as a rule because I look like I've got this tiny pin head on massive shoulders - like tennis ball in the middle of a scaffolding plank - but this is a kind of unstructured style that doesn't emphasise them. It also looks that impossible thing: smart-casual. You can wear it with a t-shirt and jeans and a jazzy necklace, (shoot me, someone take me outside and shoot me), and look really very smart.



The only problem is that when I bought it I somehow managed to get it out of the shop with the stupid security tag still attached, so now I have to traipse all the way back to get it taken off. (Thank God I kept the receipt.) Why does shit like this always happen to me.







Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Profiteroles



I was in an absolutely foul mood the other weekend - pretty much all weekend. My husband would say "how could you tell?" because he thinks I am always in a foul mood, even if I am smiling, wearing a yellow top and handing him a plate of food. I suppose as far as he's concerned even though I might look alright and normal I could suddenly turn at any given moment - I can switch in an instant, like a pirate captain, driven insane from the heat and the rum. He is not entirely wrong.

Anyway I really was in a bad mood. I have, recently, genuinely been counting my blessings in a really excellent and mindful way and finding very little to complain or be annoyed about: the children are okay - (not ill, both walking and talking, sort of sleeping on and off), I have written and published two books, Spring is round the corner and so on. But the other weekend I just lost it. The children were both driving me insane with their constant bloody falling over and wailing and breaking things and spilling things. Just fucking pull yourself together you stupid clumsy ninnies!!!!

I am not proud of myself. But the fact is that small children are often very annoying, especially if you are trying to get them to do anything other than eat Nutella toast in front of Bing Bunny. If you are trying, for example, to get them both dressed for a cold trip out to the zoo you have to find patience in a really Zen place not to lightly chuck both of them out of the window before you've even located their trousers.

Just to illustrate, often when I am dressing Kitty, reaching round her from behind to make it easier to push little wiry legs through leggings, or do up a bright green zip, Kitty will give a little jump and headbutt me in the nose or elsewhere in the face. Occasionally in the throat.

Why she does this insane little hop at the most critical and dangerous part of my getting her dressed I do not know - I have asked her, but she just looks at me with her massive eyes and says nothing. (Huge-eyed silent staring is Kitty's absolute number 1 tactical move. There's nothing you can do about it). Anyway all I know is that if I don't say firmly "Do not jump," as I am getting her dressed, then she will.

There are a million things like this that the kids do - if you give them a cup of water - any water, anywhere, any time, they will fumble it and spill it (which is why they are only allowed 2cm of water). If there is something on the floor within 10 yards of Sam, he will fall over it and land on the floor on his chin and cry until Tuesday.

Unless you respond to something she has said Kitty will say it over and over again: "But then the octopus has the green one one. The octopus has the green one on. The octopus has the green one on. Mum. The octopus. Has the green one on. The octopus has the green one on. Mum. The octopus has the green one on..." Doesn't matter if you're trying to talk to your husband, or you're reading Sam a story or having a quiet moment in the WC. If you do not acknowledge that the octopus has the green one on, that's all Kitty will say for the rest of the weekend.

Oh god I'm being so mean, I must stop it. Don't encourage me! No I really must stop now or I never will. It's not their fault that they are so small and annoying. My own mother has made it plain that I was exactly the same.

It was probably me, anyway - not them. I was extra tired because last week I went completely mad and had TWO dinner parties. We have not had a single one for at least a year and then two. Mental. I say "dinner party", we had people round for dinner, twice. And the thing about my life is that it is totally survivable - even enjoyable - as long as I am asleep, sober by 10.30pm absolute latest. If I am up twatting about with friends and then fussing with the dish washer and clearing up and then in bed at midnight I am an absolute monster for days afterwards.

So the solution is: no more dinners - only lunches or brunches. And I can't say I'm especially sad about that. I'm sure my kids will be delighted.

It does mean though that you don't get as much of an excuse to cook mad and unneccessary things, like these profiteroles, from Jane Hornby's absolutely terrific, brilliant and essential baking text: What to Bake and How To Bake It. If you are starting out baking, or want to give someone as really, really useful baking book, give them this. It's a really properly friendly, lovely thing. Jane loves you, she cares about you, she wants you to make nice cakes. It's just great. Buy it!

These profiteroles are definitely a faff to make, but they work, if you feel like making them.

As usual, this is not Jane Hornby's exact recipe

Chocolate profiteroles
Makes enough for 6

For the pastry

125g plain flour
1 tsp sugar
pinch salt
85g butter
240ml water
3 eggs

For the chocolate sauce

200g dark chocolate (personally I thought this was a bit bitter, next time I will use 100g dark and 100g milk) cut into small bits
150ml double cream
100ml milk
1 tsp vanilla paste or extract
pinch salt

For the filling

300ml whipping cream

1 Sift the flour, sugar and salt together on a piece of baking parchment (you need to whoosh the flour into hot butter later all in one go, using the parchment as a funnel)

2 Put the butter and water in a pan and heat it gently until it has melted. Once the butter has gone, turn up the heat until it is at a rolling boil. Get a wooden spoon ready and then whoosh your flour into this as soon as you reckon it's boiling and start mixing hard, off the heat. It will go lumpy and then smooth out. Stop beating when the dough comes away from the sides of the pan.

3 Let this cool however you like - on a windowsill or whatever. But wait for it to cool.

4 Beat the eggs together in a measuring jug. Put the dough in a bowl then add the egg a bit at a time and beat it in - you can use an electric hand whisk for this (I do) or a bowl mixer or whatever if you are Nigella.

5 Preheat the oven to 220C (fan 200C) and then line a baking tray with baking parchment. You can either spoon or pipe the dough onto the tray. The blobs ought to be about walnut-sized. If you get any big sticky-up bits, you can smooth them down with a wet finger like they do on Bake-Off.

6 Bake for 10 mins, then turn the heat down to 200C (fan 180C) and cook for 20 mins or until golden brown and crisp. Once cooked, cut each 'role lengthways but not all the way through. Leave to cool. You can leave these for 24 hours if you like. Fan oven owners are at a rare advantage here as fan ovens dry absolutely everything to a desiccated husk, which is in fact the effect one is after with these.

7 You can fill these shells with the whipped cream up to 2 hours before you want to serve them - any longer and you run the risk of them going soggy.

8 To make the chocolate sauce bring the cream and milk to a simmer in a pan, add the chocolate, vanilla and salt, then take off the heat and stir until smooth.

I tried to assemble these in a beautiful pyramid (see pic) but it was a dreadful, nervatious faff to do, so my advice is to fill them with cream, put three or four in six individual bowls ahead of time and then on serving, dribble over the chocolate sauce.