I eat my feelings, and maybe you do too

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I am the sort of person who thinks a lot about food. You might be able to tell. Most of my jokes are about biscuits, aren’t they? I maintain forever and always that a good biscuit joke sets most people at ease and, an additional benefit, encourages them to think more about biscuits.

Lately I’ve been wondering whether my relationship to food is as healthy as it could be. My goodness, food and I are complex, intertwined, weirdly co-dependent creatures. Here are a few things that are true for me (are any of them true for you too?):

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I am northern. My cooking tends to be on the heavy, meat-and-potatoes side of things. I like meat and potatoes best when it’s in a pie. DO NOT EVEN GET ME STARTED ON PIE.

I do not smoke, drink or take drugs, but I use chocolate ice cream in a way that resembles all of these things.

I like good food, whole food, expensive food…and down-and-dirty food, greasy food, delivered-to-your-door-in-a-damp-paper-bag food. I eat unhealthily often, and gleefully, but with a sad sense of grossness afterwards.

I tried counting calories once, and it bored the freaking pants off me. I would never, ever consider giving up dairy, wheat or meat unless I were actually dying. I mean, CHEESE.

I come from a family where our genes run small and skinny. I have a vastly skewed sense of ‘normal’ size and weight as a result. I place far, far too much emphasis on how much I weigh, rather than how I feel. If you ever asked me my weight, I could tell you and the number would be accurate to within 48 hours.

I would rather spend money eating out at a restaurant than buying almost anything else.

I don’t enjoy being pregnant, and I think maybe one of the reasons is that my body shape is out of my own control.

I often go days or weeks between fizzy drinks, but I have to close my eyes in intense appreciation after the first gulp of cold Coke. Every time.

I use food as reward and emotional salve: the times I’m eating for other reasons – exhaustion, boredom, stress, sadness – far outnumber the times I’m eating because I’m hungry. And by the way I talk about it (‘will some fruit snacks make you feel better?’), I think I encourage my children to do the same.

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Doesn’t that make me sound seriously unbalanced? I’m not, I promise. But this is hard: food is energy and health and a delight in its own right, a bringer-together of families and friends, delicious in its earthiness and physicality. You should love it, we say, but not the bad parts and not too much and not in a weird way. There has to be a line you can walk between ‘I like to eat’ and ‘I am unhealthily dependent on liking to eat, and use it to propel myself emotionally through the day’. I want to find that line. I think it would do me some good.

So I’ve been trying to make some changes around here – not so much in what we’re eating, but in how we eat it. These are not refined theories at all, and I’m really just feeling my way to some better habits. What do you think?

one,

I’m trying to be a little more aware of why I’m opening the  kitchen cupboard, and organising the continual grazing into structured meals and snack times. Ben & Jerry’s after the boys go to bed and before I start work? Reasonable. Ben & Jerry’s at 9.30am because drying my hair took less time than expected? Unreasonable.

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two,

I’m trying to eliminate the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ eating (adults talking about ‘naughty’ food is a cringey bug-bear of mine), and consider instead what my body might need to take in, and how much it needs before it’s full. I can appreciate the iron in our beef lasagne and the vitamins in my salad…while also accepting that sometimes a whacking great burger and fries is exactly what I need, because it tastes nice and I enjoy it.

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three,

I’m trying to make our daily family meals more of an event, particularly dinner time. Flowers, place mats, fancy napkins and serving bowls, little side dishes to round out the main course…we usually saved these for guests, but why should we? I am a big believer in forging our family links around a dinner table. This is where the boys learn to talk about their day and listen to someone else’s. They need patience and social graces to make it through a meal. And I’ve noticed that when I make it feel a little more fancy, Henry is more excited to be there, and more inclined to raise his game.

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four,

I’m trying not to make quite so many jokes about biscuits. KIDDING, AS IF I WOULD EVER.

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I ate Ben & Jerry’s while writing this, and I can’t decide whether this is ironic or whether ice cream and blogging is a perfectly reasonable combination. But here’s to food in its proper place: on our plates, in our bellies, making us happy but not, somehow, needing to. I’ll clink our cheeseburgers together to that.

Cakery Bakery: the only pumpkin chocolate chip cookie you will ever need

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Yesterday night we skipped off to watch Ender’s Game at the cinema (which I loved). And so, in the spirit of dramatic sci-fi narration, let me say this:

there are some recipes that will CHANGE YOUR LIIIIIIFE.

And this is one of them.

Thanks to a lovely friend being wonderfully generous with the contents of her store cupboard, I now have more cans of pumpkin than I know what to do with – or I would, if I didn’t like pie so much. When I found this recipe claiming to be the best pumpkin chocolate chip cookie ever, I was ready to break into my stash and take that sucker down. (Sorry, that’s the sci-fi voice coming out again. Down, Harrison, down.)

The ingredients are almost all cupboard staples, with the exception of molasses (I use Lyons’ black treacle, Britishers) and canola oil (I use rapeseed oil, Britishers, though I’m pretty sure ordinary vegetable oil would work just fine). The method is a throw-it-all-in-and-mix type, which always makes me happy. It was all done in a jiffy, even with Henry trying to stick his face in the treacle.

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Two notes about the mixing:

- put in the oil first, then use the same cup measure to put in the molasses. Black treacle is stickier than Satan’s armpit, but with a residual layer of oil in the bottom of the cup, it slides out into the bowl without a problem. And – this is very important -

- re. chocolate chips: go plain, or go home. And always, always put at least a third more in than you think you’ll need.

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The mixture is unpleasantly brown and clingy, but just wait till their ten minutes in the oven are up. These things puff out into glorious, golden mounds, cracked along the top like fault lines and studded with melted chocolate chips. If you don’t take care ladling out the dough, they can very easily be as large as your face. Crack one open and they are cakey and slightly chewy – like good gingerbread, almost, but without the ginger. Curiously, the pumpkin doesn’t come through very strongly, though they’re not at all tasteless. What they most remind me of are those German Christmas cookies: the same spices and the same texture. Magnificent, in other words. And the batch made thirty-five.

Store in a tin, and eat at your leisure. But even thirty-five of these babies won’t last long. I do not think there is a better cookie in the whole of space and time. And that’s not even Harrison Ford talking.

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The recipe for these cookies is courtesy of heynataliejean.com, and can be found here. Do it. DO IT NOW.

Autumn love #3: the pie’s the thing

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One of the advantages of not frequenting Pinterest – apart from having no burning desire whatever to upcycle my plumbing – is that we’re almost done with October and I’m still hugely excited about pumpkin recipes. I scoped out Waitrose a couple of weeks ago for canned pumpkin (there were five tins and I only took three, which I thought was supreme self-control) and it’s been sitting in my cupboard and winking at me since then. Yesterday I finally got an afternoon where the toddler/baby/naptime stars aligned, so we opened the pumpkin cupboard and let those babies run free, FREE.

Pie first. Of course. I unimaginatively use the recipe on the back of the Libby’s can, and a pastry recipe courtesy of my sister-in-law (Fannie Farmer’s originally, I believe, and reproduced below) that is the veritable bomb.

I love every bit of this: stretching springy pastry dough over the pie dish, the mud-squelchy sound when the pumpkin tips out of the can into the bowl, mixing the spices, and – ahem – drinking the left-over condensed milk. From a glass. Don’t judge me.

There was a bit of leftover pastry, too, and Hen made himself a tiny jam roly-poly. Watching him wielding his miniature rolling pin and then scoffing his prize in front of Finding Nemo was the cutest thing ever. Teds would’ve been jealous, but he’s not the type.

The pie’s gone, by the way.

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Pastry recipe:

1 1/2 cups flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup shortening
3-7 tablespoons cold water 

Mix flour and salt, then add shortening and mix in using two knives, dragging in opposite directions. 

Add cold water until it starts coming together, then roll out on a floured board. 

(Makes enough for a 9-inch dish). 

See here for a step-by-step, from the first time I made it. Happy baking!

Five cakes for five occasions

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This week we have discovered that the more people you have in a house, the longer you can keep a cold virus going. We just keep throwing it between us like a frisbee of snotty sadness. I’m a lot better at catching colds than I am at catching frisbees (twice in a week, now! I am the virus winner!), which is oddly making me feel a little better.

Anyway, after I’ve run through painkillers and melodrama, dessert is my third stop during cold season. I had to choose three of my favourite desserts to bring to an activity last week, and I just hope you never have to make such a wrenching decision, dear readers. So much good cake. So much. [tears.]

So I thought I’d try to be useful, and suggest a few shortcuts. Here are five cakes perfect for five occasions – and it should go without saying that all of them will improve your average snotastrophe NO END.

the birthday party: white chocolate and brownie torte

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This is ideal birthday fare: it’s the easiest thing in the world and looks far more impressive than it should (good for crowds), but needs eight hours in the freezer, so can’t be made on a whim (hopefully your loved one’s birthday hasn’t come as a surprise). And with only three ingredients, I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like it.

I inherited this recipe from my mother-in-law – if you recognise where it’s from, let me know so I can credit it!

Ingredients:

300g white chocolate

600ml/1 pint double cream

250g brownies (I use one of those boxes of mini brownies in the bakery section at Tesco)

cocoa powder

Method:

Line an 8-inch Springform tin with greaseproof paper.

Break the chocolate into pieces, and melt in a pan with 1/4 pint (150 ml) of the cream. Let it cool once it’s melted.

Crumble the brownies into pieces, and pack into the bottom of the tin (not too hard!).

Whip the remaining cream (3/4 pint, 450 ml) into soft peaks, then fold in the chocolate mixture.

Spoon into the tin, clingfilm and freeze for 8 hours (or overnight).

Transfer the torte to the fridge 45 minutes before serving. Dust with cocoa powder.

Read the full run-through here.

the valentine: Sophie Dahl’s flourless chocolate cake

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I may be just shallow, but nothing says true love to me like the BEST CHOCOLATE CAKE YOU’VE EVER HAD. Trust me, I’ve tried a lot, and this is the one I keep coming back to. Without flour, the cake relies on whipped egg whites to rise, which makes it moist (I hate that word, but when it fits…) and puddingy. Creme fraiche and raspberries on top, while deeply offending Mr Jeffcoat, counterbalance the chocolate nicely, and prevent it from being too sickly.

The recipe is here, and you can read about the first time I tried it here. The only thing I’d add is that putting chocolate in a food processor always broke my food processor, and cutting it up finely was achey and time-consuming. Just melt the chocolate with the butter in the microwave, and follow the recipe from there.

Mmmm. Romance.

the church social: lemon bars

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I do this every time: sign up to bring a dessert to some activity or other, and then forget until the last minute. I owe my friend Kathryn for this revelation: soft shortbread underneath squidgy lemon-meringue-style topping that tastes like happiness. One tray can be sliced into as many pieces as you need, and you can dress it up in individual cupcake cases if need be. Timothy always requests these to bring into the office on his birthday, at which point one of his coworkers described them as ‘like a lemon snog to the face’. I cannot give any better recommendation than this.

Crust Ingredients:

1 cup butter (this translates to about 226g)
1/2 cup icing sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups flour (I use about 3/4 plain flour and 1/4 self-raising – did it this way by accident once and it worked well)

Filling ingredients:

4 eggs, slightly beaten
2 cups sugar, any kind
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 cup flour (self-raising, I use)
1/4 cup lemon juice
Rind of 1 lemon, grated

Method

For crust -
1) Cream butter and icing sugar.
2) Add salt and flour, and mix well.
3) Pat into a 9 x 13 inch lined baking tin. Bake at 170 C for 15-20 mins.

For filling -
1) Mix all ingredients and pour over hot crust. Bake at 170 C for about 25-30 mins. It should be light brown on top and a curd-like consistency.
2) When done, sprinkle with icing sugar. Cut into squares when cool.

Read the full run-through here.

the Sunday lunch: Nigella’s ice cream cake

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Och, this one is amazing. Ice cream mixed with biscuits, chocolate and honeycomb, frozen into place and then covered with hot chocolate and butterscotch sauce. Ideal for Sunday lunch because it’s dead easy, and you can fill it with whatever your family or guests like best: peanuts, chocolate chips, different types of biscuit, favourite chocolate bars – even fruit, if you must.

Nigella’s recipe is here, but it’s not an exact science: just a tub of ice cream, your favourite things, and a Springform tin. The recipes for hot chocolate sauce is here, and the butterscotch sauce is here. One would do, but using both makes it a thing of beauty.

Read the full run-through here.

the comfort eat: cinnamon roll cake

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I speak here as someone obsessed with cinnamon rolls, but without the patience (or breadmaker) to make them. I first made this on a rainy afternoon with friends, so heavily pregnant I looked like a giant cheeseburger, and I swear to you I nearly buried my face in it. It’s another tray bake (though you could put it in any shaped tin you like) which is somewhat dangerous: you start off virtuously with a small square, and before you know it, it’s half gone.

The recipe is from The Girl Who Ate Everything, and it’s here. I use a cream cheese frosting rather than her suggested icing, which is at the bottom of the page, here (I generally halve this recipe, because it’s insane). And while I’d recommend checking the cake after the recommended 25-30 minutes, it actually takes just over an hour in my oven. Maybe it’s an altitude thing.

Read the full run-through here.

Head cold, I spit in your face. And eat cake. So much cake. [tears.]

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Cakery Bakery: Cinnamon roll cake

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I finished work on Friday. Not forever, but for long enough. Oh, it was like being let out of school before the long summer holiday, only with several hundred added Braxton Hicks. I bought a newborn car seat, in celebration (by heck do I know how to live). And then I made a cake.

It felt like a conquered mountain in itself, this cake. Baking is rather difficult at present, with a) Henry trying to get his tongue into the egg whites and b) all of this foetus to carry around. And I am generally obsessed with cinnamon rolls, but without a breadmaker can never be bothered to go through with them. Well, have a look at this: cinnamon roll cake, from The Girl Who Ate Everything (still working my way through her website. Still in love). It’s like a giant cinnamon roll, but without any dough palaver. Why didn’t anyone think of this before?

It didn’t go entirely smoothly, I admit. It started well: the cake mix is one of those wonderful throw-everything-in-a-bowl-and-press-go types, which always makes me happy. I used my free-standing mixer, but a handheld electric one would work just as well. That part is over and in a baking tin before you can say LITTLE BOY, PLEASE MOVE YOUR FACE AWAY FROM THAT EGG.

Then you prepare what the recipe calls topping, but is more like filling: cinnamon, soft butter, brown sugar and pecans all mixed together. My butter wasn’t quite soft enough, so I prepared the pecans separately, thinking it might be easier to whisk without them (it was). The instructions said to put tablespoonfuls of the filling on top of the cake mix, then use a knife to ‘marble’ it in. Well. My filling spoonfuls sat on top of the cake mix like daubs of cold peanut butter, and clearly weren’t going to marble anywhere at all. I ended up mashing them in any old how. It was messy, and left my cake looking like it had a bad case of acne (especially once I put the pecans on top), but we forged on.

Marbling [mashing]. Before and after.

Marbling [mashing]. Before and after.

Then came the real trouble. In the oven for 25-30 minutes, said the recipe. Which I did. I took the cake out, poked in a knife, and was utterly horrified when a lava-flow of grease came flooding out. I realised it was the butter/sugar solution, partying away on the inside. Who on earth would want to eat a grease cake?! I put it back in for another ten minutes. No grease this time, but lots of raw cake mix. Another ten minutes. And another ten. Thirty-five minutes after the recipe said it would be done, it was done. I wasn’t at all sure it would be edible, by this point.

Thank goodness for cream cheese frosting. The recipe gives instructions for a glaze that looks like a thin form of icing. But cinnamon rolls need cream cheese frosting, yes? It just feels right. I used this recipe, halved. It’s the sort of thing I can happily eat from the bowl, with a spatula. I would eat it on toast. I would probably lick it off a wall, to be honest, but for the time being it was jolly lovely on the cake.

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The verdict, then:

Deliciousness: Do you know, after all that, it was wonderful. Extremely fluffy, gloriously messy and crumbly. I don’t know why it took half an hour longer in the oven than it should’ve done, but it didn’t suffer for it. The filling makes sandy little cinnamon blobs in the middle of every slice, and the frosting and pecans together are lovely.

Complexity: If I can work out the correct oven time, it’s a cinch: measure, mix, dump in a tin. So much easier than proper cinnamon rolls. Now I have an ominous feeling.

Washing-up pile: Two bowls and some cutlery. Nice and easy (not – um – that I actually did the clearing up. Thanks, kitchen wonders!).

Casualties: Here is a life lesson – you don’t want to wipe a ladleful of sugar/butter/cinnamon out of a toddler’s face and hair. Ever. That stuff clings.

Oh gosh, it's not going to come off. Is it?

This was the moment I realised it wasn’t going to come off.

The recipe for cinnamon roll cake is here, and the frosting I used is at the bottom of the page here. Go go go!

Cakery Bakery: Strawberry cream puff cake

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We made it to May!

I don’t have any maypoles handy, and I’m not keen on the idea of gathering nuts, in May or otherwise. But, do you know, it feels like an awfully long time since I made some cake. It being May and all, we decided to bake something appropriate for sunny weather. THIS MEANS STRAWBERRIES.

I discovered, recently, a great recipe website called The Girl Who Ate Everything. Her chicken taco soup is now one of our evening staples. And today we decided on this: a strawberry cream puff cake. What is a puff cake, I wondered? Even now I’m not really sure what the answer is. The base is somewhere between eggy pudding, souffle and pastry. It’s topped with a cream cheese/whipped cream frosting, and lots of strawberries. And it tastes amazing. This is all you need to know.

The cream puff layer comes first. You melt butter, water and sugar in a saucepan, bring it to the boil, then dump in a load of flour and stir like billy-oh. Boiling sugar always makes me nervous, and so does adding flour to anything on the stove, but it turned into a kind of play-doh mixture without any explosions. Three eggs and a whisk later, the mixture is done. You pour it into a springform tin and it goes in the oven. After 25 minutes, the thing is golden brown, gigantic and making a valiant effort to climb out of the tin. You stab it several times with a toothpick to squash any of that nonsense, and then put it back in for a bit. Done, and done. I do love a cake that’s supposed to sink in the middle. It makes a nice change.

The cream cheese topping is cream cheese, icing sugar, heavy whipping cream (I substituted double cream, Englishers) and a bit of vanilla. The recipe also says orange zest, but I didn’t have any ready-made and couldn’t be bothered to grate some, so I missed it out. I don’t think it suffered without it. That goes on the cooled cream puff base – do wait till it’s properly cool, or it’ll melt horribly – with chopped strawberries on top of that. Like the Girl Who Ate Everything, I chopped my strawberries while the base was cooking, and put them in the fridge with a bit of sugar until they were needed. They sat in their own syrup, and were lovely.

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Henry spent a good half hour afterwards licking the beaters and trying to clean out the cream cheese bowl with a spatula. I’ll remember that for later.

I think possibly I undercooked my base a little – it was definitely more eggy pudding than pastry at the bottom – but it was delicious anyway. The cream cheese topping is wonderful (you can ask Henry’s vest). And strawberries, well. It felt like the perfect end to a sunshiny day.

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Deliciousness: Make it now. Oh alright, finish reading this first. THEN go make it.

Complexity: Not only was it very easy – the crumply base is the sort of thing that is supposed to look artfully dishevelled, so it’s hard to get wrong – but the ingredients were primarily items I already had. Which is always a nice bonus.

Washing-up pile: You guys, I haven’t washed up in two days. I have no idea how many of those eighty-seven items are baking related.

Casualties: Unless you can overdose on cheesy cream, I think we’ll all be fine.

The recipe for this cake is here. Go go go!

It’s my birthday, and I wished for this

This, being…

one insomniac coughing fit so energetic I blew out an eardrum (brills)

two naps, three boxes of chocolate, four new books (better)

one cafe breakfast and a bottle of the best French lemonade we ever had

one birthday cake made from piled-up scones-and-cream-and-jam

and one boy in tractor wellies, one boy popping the buttons off my coat, and one boy holding my hand under the table.

I’ve never had a birthday where I felt worse and enjoyed myself more. Seriously, these boys. They make my twenty-eight.

(I would also really like to be in bed at this point, but I’ve got another fifteen minutes till my next bout of cold medicine. So, like, a million photos? Yep, good idea.)

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