Monthly Archives: September 2012

My Plum Crumble

The name of this recipe is a total lie. It’s not MY plum crumble. But I don’t remember where the recipe came from, and I make it so much that it is, in my head at least, mine. I know I got it in a rush one day because my esteemed friend Wendy was coming round for dinner, to show me her newly bought Aston Martin (as you do). Wendy is a vegetarian and I wanted to prepare dinner with what I had in the house. So I ended up making two things I’d never made before, and that were both magnificent successes. Mercifully, I wrote down the recipe for the plum crumble and have been making it ever since. The other recipe, for butternut squash risotto – which was STUPENDOUS – is lost forever.

Here is the plum crumble. I often use half wholemeal plain flour and half white plain, without noticing any difference other than a more nutty flavour. But as ever with recipes, I’d start off with doing it as it says before experimenting.

700-800g plums, stoned and quartered
175g dark brown soft sugar
a squeeze of lemon
175g plain flour (I now use 75g wholemeal, 100g white)
150g butter, cold and cut into pieces
50g porridge oats (as in the flakes, not pinmeal)

Quarter the plums and put into a dish about…hmmm. I use a Le Creuset dish that holds 1.6l. This pudding serves about 6-8 so you know, just kinda guess. The plums should fit snugly across the bottom.

Squeeze the lemon over the top, add two tablespoons of the sugar and 125ml of water.  Mix around so all the plums are coated.

Now in a food processor, mix up the flour and rest of the sugar. Especially if you’re using that soft brown sugar that clumps together. Now add the butter and pulse for a few seconds, and finally the oats. Pulse briefly until starting to clump together.

Put over the plums evenly. Put the dish on a baking dish (in case the plums ooze their juice all over the oven floor) and cook at 190C for about 40 minutes until all nice and brown.

This is obviously delicious, but I feel the need to point it out anyway, with custard, cream or a little vanilla ice cream. If home made, so much the better. I do kid myself that it’s good for you, as it’s fruit and the topping has oats (I conveniently forget the sugar). You can reheat it in the microwave, it doesn’t harm the topping too much. I just find this crumble really warming and satisfying and generally, spirt lifting. But I may give my puddings too much importance.

I don’t have a picture. Sorry.

Snuggle suits, aka all in ones

Fleece snuggle suits. Be warned, they also come in adult sizes.

All in ones are an inescapable feature of your wardrobe when you’re a baby. But as you get older, these frankly super useful items of apparel are jettisoned in favour of separates.

Some years ago, Gap sold waffle cotton all in ones for grown ups. Think cowboy style long johns and long sleeved vest combined, in jolly colours like red. Reader, I had some and they were fantastic. I wish I could tell you that I saved them for nights in alone. But no, I didn’t.

I won’t go into any further detail on this.

Last year my mother, who is able to find items of clothing I never find in shops, that my children both love and find incredibly useful, found an all in one navy PJ thing for my eldest (who is eight). Okay, it had a picture of Mickey or Minnie Mouse on it but my daughter loved it. She felt all cosy in it and it was great for after a bath in the way that draughty separates just aren’t.

We live in a small, draughty house in the country and after a bath, I wanted something for my children to be able to put on that would be snug, so I was thinking: fleece. These all in ones with a front zip are so easy to find when your child is under 24 months, but over that? Forget it.

I eventually found the All in One Company.  I ordered two – made to measure as they all are. I ordered them in a colour that had chocolate in the title, because you can’t really go wrong with this I thought. I was right. Although my children do look like small bears wearing them.

Do please read the sizing instructions as you can’t return them unless they are faulty, but you have to order a basic ‘age’ size and then you can customize it so if your child has particularly long legs or arms or bodies – they can do it accordingly. The variations – colours, combination of colours, add ons (tails!?), etc, are a bit mind boggling. But you’ll get there in the end.

They are all made in the UK, so they’re not the cheapest you can get. But let me tell you that the customer service was INCREDIBLE and the quality of the finished items superb. The only extras I had were hoods, to keep the costs down.

Ice cream cake

Very yummy ice cream cake

When I used to go to Italy, up to Salsomaggiore Terme, provincia di Parma, where my father is from, we used to go to Pasticceria Tosi on Sunday to buy little cakes and pastries (a very common tradition in Italy). In the fridge/freezer display there would always be ice cream cakes.

They seemed impossibly luxurious and I can still see myself looking in at them.

When I saw this recipe by Bill Granger in the August edition of Waitrose magazine, I knew I had to try it (unfortunately I can’t find a link to it on the Waitrose site). He calls it tiramisu ice cream cake. Of course, being Italian, I cannot call it this.

I adapted it quite a bit, halving the proportions, adding more sponge fingers, less chocolate and taking out the Kahlua that Granger asks for (I haven’t got any in my cupboard and I’m not going to spend £17 on a bottle of it to keep in said cupboard, but if you have some, do use it, maybe half and half marsala or all Kahlua, up to you). I know this recipe may seem imprecise, but the beauty of it is that you can add more or less of something you like/don’t like.

This is what I did:

65ml espresso/strong black coffee
30ml marsala (or use sherry)
Nearly a whole packet of sponge fingers (about 170g)
Some vanilla ice cream, I used about half of one batch of this home made stuff
About 50g of grated dark chocolate

I lined a small loaf tin (about 6″ x 4″) with some parchment paper. Then I started layering up the dessert.

Mix the coffee and marsala together in a small dish. Individually dip the sponge fingers into it. Don’t linger or they will fall apart. Lay the fingers down on the base of the dish, break some up if they don’t fit but end up with a base of soaked sponge fingers.

Now layer with vanilla ice cream, then grated chocolate. Grating chocolate is possibly one of my least favourite jobs EVER, as the chocolate ends up going everywhere and sticking to the grater. So I didn’t use loads, you can use more if you like. I probably should have used my grater attachment on my food processor, but I don’t like to use it for what I consider small jobs..

Then  just keep going. Dip the sponge fingers in the mixture, ice cream, grated chocolate. Until you run out of space. I ended up with a layer of sponge fingers as I like them, Granger says to end up with a sprinkling of chocolate.

Cover with cling film and put in the freezer. Take out for about 30 mins before you need it and keep it in the fridge. It slices beautifully and my eldest loved it (although I need to point out that it DOES HAVE ALCOHOL IN IT and it is ILLEGAL TO GIVE ALCOHOL TO A CHILD UNDER THE AGE OF FIVE). I gave my youngest a separate bit with no booze in it.

Afterwards it struck me that if you preferred you could layer these up individually in little ramekins or some lovely little glasses and freeze them individually.

If making for a large party, double the recipe above and use a big old square tin. Granger recommends 26″ square but use your common sense. No reason you couldn’t make this in a loaf tin like I did just a bigger one.

Light ‘n’ fluffy vanilla ice cream

Never underestimate how hard it is to be a food photographer.

There are two people I discuss ice cream making with. My father and my friend Lucy. Recently Lucy told me about an unassuming little recipe she had come across for vanilla ice cream that was different to the way we usually made ice cream: instead of the custard method (which uses just the yolks of the egg), it used the whole egg. This was of particular interest to me as I make lots of ice cream and my freezer is overflowing with egg whites. There are only so many madeleines I can make.

This vanilla ice cream recipe is also great because it’s quick, easy and makes a lovely light vanilla ice cream that scoops straight from the freezer and children, in particular, seem to love. I would probably go with my more luxe version if the ice cream were being served at a really posh dinner party, atop, say, some exquisite piece of patisserie.

I’ve adapted the recipe slightly (lowered the sugar from 100g to 80g and slightly changed how you make it).

4 eggs, separated
80g icing sugar
teaspoon of vanilla essence
300ml double cream

Get three large bowls. Separate the egg yolks and egg whites into a bowl each. Put the cream into the third bowl.

Add the vanilla essence to egg yolks. Do it NOW or you will forget and without it, you have Fior di Latte ice cream, not vanilla. Add the sugar to the egg yolks too.

Take an electric hand held whisk. Whisk the egg whites until stiff. Then the cream until it holds itself properly, like a well trained ballerina. Finally the egg yolks, sugar, vanilla essence.

Now gently fold the cream into the egg yolk mixture and finally the egg whites. Put in ice cream maker. If yours is very small, you may have to do this in two batches. I have a Magimix and I put it all in, it comes right up to the top but it reduces as it’s being made.

You can of course have this on its own. Make tiramisu with it, it goes great with a fruit salad. Or fold in some chocolate coated popping candy for something a bit Heston.

Cashmere cowl necks

Clearly  nicked off the M&S website and I can’t get a better picture but here’s the cowl neck which is £99.

My penchant for cowl necks probably dates back to one of my primary school teachers, Miss Evans. She used to wear angora cowl necks (they had a high fluff factor) and she used to read us stories on sleepy afternoons. Some of us used to sit behind her, perched up high, and comb her hair.

She was a particularly benign and gentle teacher. But I don’t remember a single other thing about her other than these lovely dozy afternoons and her jumpers and hair (flicky, blonde).

Now that I’m fully a grown up, and not scared of womanly things (although I still have problems with writing words like ‘womanly things’) I can embrace the wonderfulness of a cowl neck. It’s a big, blousy jumper you can play with, hide behind, pull up the neck on if you’re cold. And for the last three years, I’ve searched, not extensively, but enthusiastically, for a cashmere cowl neck in some wonderful jewel colour.

The other day, when I was already late, I was in the corner entrance of the M&S in London’s Marble Arch. Possibly one of the busiest shop entrances in the world. And some lazy shopper had not put back a cardigan, a long cardigan the sort that would be part comfort blanket, part apparel. A cardigan which I happened to touch and which immediately told me this was no ordinary cardigan.

This wasn’t even an M&S cardigan.

This was the cardigan. Of course it looks like nothing here, but it is snuggly and has pockets and is warm and you’ll live in it this winter. It costs £129. Gasp.

It was something better.

It was 100% cashmere with a price tag to match and the label said M&S Woman. A title I found a bit nauseating but I ignored this. So I went in search of the rest of the M&S Woman stuff and found it tucked away opposite the Per Una collection (not my favourite bit). There was so much cashmere. Cowl necks, short cardigans, long cardigan, ribbed cardigans, round necks, twinset cardigans, sweatshirt and hooded jumpers. Cashmere cashmere cashmere. In blacks and navys but also COLOURS, including pinks and purples and greens.

I’m going to cut a very long story short. A story which sees an assistant called Maree spend an hour with me (not then, but later as I had to go back) watching me whilst I tried on every colour of every jumper. Watching me in a helpful way, not in a security kinda way. I learned about every place she’d ever lived so it was a reciprocal arrangement.

It involves my friend Karen, a professional personal shopper, altering her plans to come and meet me to watch me trying on lots of knitwear in various colours. It, further, involved a quasi 3hr stay in the M&S cafe with Karen whilst I deliberated over what to buy, in what colour and gave myself my own advice: about how you should always buy something when you see it, because when you need it, you can never find anything you like to wear. (We did also talk about other things. I’m not that self absorbed.)

So. I bought some cashmere. I can’t tell you how much as people I know in real life read this. And if my mother is reading this, I DIDN’T buy any cashmere.

Anyway, what you need to know is this: this is a good collection with some lovely pieces. But in the way of the world, by the time it’s cold enough for you to be thinking “I need a cashmere jumper” they will have sold out and swimsuits will be on sale. So if you need cashmere, buy it now. The cowl necks are gorgeous, so much better on than off. And cashmere is so warm, you can delay putting the heating on.

I’m sweating as I write this because I feel so guilty, although it could of course be the heat retaining properties of 100% cashmere.

Fantastic, fun, outdoor chalky crayons

I recently took advantage of having four strapping men round to lunch (with their partners) to move our very large outdoor table off the patio. Revealing a moss, alge covered set of paving stones which I am currently blasting with a pressure washer (Karcher, fabulous). I intend to turn this into a back yard kinda thing for the children to play in. I am all about giving my children more fun, outdoor things to do. It has, of course, absolutely nothing to do with them but everything to do with the inner child in me who was brought up in a two bedroomed flat WITH NO OUTSIDE SPACE.

Anyway. The therapy has been booked and I’m working through it. In the meantime, when I went to some friends for lunch recently they had a set of giant crayons and the children were going crazy graffiting all over the yard (I love the word yard, it featured large in my childhood stories of Mrs Piggle Wiggle). I got these which are really bright chalks rather than crayons (not sure why they are called crayons) but all you need to know is that they are REALLY BRIGHT, fun, and it says washable but I like to live dangerously and haven’t tried that yet.

I paid 10p under £7 for a packet of 15 from Amazon. I think these are a perfect thing for your children to do in the autumn.

You’re welcome.

2016 note: for some reason the crayons above are now £63 from Amazon which is, of course, madness. I think it’s because you can’t really get them and they have been replaced by these.



Onya Bottles

Onya water bottles

I first came across Onya bags six years ago, when I was co-running the parenting website (now no longer, so don’t looking for it). Onya bags (so named cos they’re always ‘onya’) are reusable bags that scrunch up small and have a clip so you can attach them to your keys/bag/whatever. I think they were made of old parachute silk before, but now they’re all made out of recycled plastic bottles. (Technology pioneered by the sportswear company Patagonia some fifteen years ago.)

Lovely Onya bags

Anyway. They made great little presents, these little bags that folded up really small, came in bright colours, and then folded out to make useful shopping bags. I featured them in my Guardian Personal Shopper column and got to know Dan a bit over the phone. Onya bags had an awe inspiring back story which I shan’t share here as it’s not mine to share. Suffice to say it’d make you cry. I happened to go on Jeremy Vine’s Radio 2 show one day – this was about five years ago – when I mentioned Onya bags, saying I didn’t know why the big supermarkets didn’t use them, putting their logo on. (I felt that, hitherto, all reusable bags were either too small or too big, or just not right, but Onya bags seemed to have pretty much carved out a place as the best sort of reusable bag.)

In the taxi on the way home, Dan rang me to say that Tesco had rung him, wanting to place an initial order of 500,000. I think you can work out that this would be pretty life changing for anyone. But Dan turned Tesco down. That’s just the sort of guy he is. He never publicized this amazing show of integrity.

I kept in touch with Dan, and what Onya bags were doing over the years and the whole range has come on hugely. There are now ruck sacks which unfold out of small bags, lunch rolls (really rather good, Dan sent me two free and they work brilliantly for small children as it also provides a surface for them to eat off when you’re on the go), little pouches to keep your dog-poop bags in.

But the piece de resistance, for me, came when they introduced stainless steel bottles. This was right in the middle of the story that was following another water bottle manufacturer around as it couldn’t confirm its liners were BPA free. Onya bottles are all stainless steel – no liner – and they come in a variety of sizes and the great thing is that you can put anything in them – water, juice, cordial, hot drinks, cold drinks (they are not thermal however). In lined aluminum bottles you can’t put anything like fruit juice as the acid would erode the lining over time. I was also glad of how industrial they looked, as I was a bit over cutesy fairies and farm animals by this stage.

We all have them from the 350ml size to the 1000ml size; with the neoprene sleeve and lanyard they make a great cycling companion. My eldest takes hers to school every day. They come in various colours, but note that the coloured ones that I bought chipped in places over time – but that’s okay as there’s just a plain stainless steel bottle underneath. Also various ways of drinking from them: you can even get a ‘teat’ for a baby. My prefence is for the screw off cap as I like to drink my water straight from stainless steel and not through plastic (I’ve never found any sort of plastic lid you can drink through that doesn’t slightly make the water taste different, and this is a pet hate of mine). But if you do choose a drinking lid – and they’re great for children – then I recommend these flip and flow ones. You can also get adapters so you can use these on your bike.

I now buy the 350ml size for my friends whose children are starting school. It’s a boring, but useful present. My eldest has been using hers every day since she started school four years ago and it’s still like new (with a few tiny dents in it). Prices for the bottles start at £8.50.

Note: Dan gave me a discount on some of the Onya bags he sold me about six years ago, and he sent me two free Onya Lunches, quite unbidden, a while ago. Other than that, I paid for everything at full retail price.