Monthly Archives: April 2013


Ribollita means ‘reboiled’. That’s not an attractive title is it? But the name belies just how wonderful this soup is: incredibly tasty, healthy, sustaining, satisfying. I urge you to try it. It’s what you’d call ‘hearty peasant food’ but to us, it’s dinner, or lunch. It’s a great way to use up old, hearty bread, a bit past its best.

We do use this to use up the older sourdough and it makes a large vat. I think it’d easily serve six.

2 tablespoons of olive oil

20g butter

1 red onion, slice finely

4 stalks of celery, chopped and de-‘stringed’ (don’t worry if you can’t be bothered to do this but we do)

3 chopped carrots

500g Swiss chard or cavolo nero. What you need to do here, with your hands, is separate out the stems and cut them into half a fingers length if they’re big, strip the leaves off and put to one side so you end up with two piles: the leaves and the stems. I can just imagine my nonna doing this whilst chatting to her women friends, putting the world to right

4 cloves of garlic, crushed or chopped. I HATE garlic crushers

A small bunch of flat leaf parsley, chopped up small

400g can of good, plum peeled tomatoes.

400g borlotti beans

some old sourdough/hearty bread (I leave this out sometimes but it’s a great way of using up old bread, do NOT be tempted to put in crap white supermarket sliced for goodness sake)

So you heat the butter up in the saucepan with the oil, until the butter has just melted. If you add the veg to really hot oil, it will brown and you don’t want that, you want to soften it. Add the onion, celery and carrots and the chard stalks and give it about 20 mins. Cover it, don’t cover it, it doesn’t really matter. Then add the garlic, and parsley and cook for another five mins. Now stir in the tomatoes, there shouldn’t be much juice if these are quality tomatoes but add whatever there is. Break them up a bit and cook for about 10 mins. Now add the beans and pour enough water to cover the whole thing. Simmer for half an hour, 40 mins. Then add the leaves of the chard or cavolo nero and cook for another ten or so minutes. Add a bit more water if it looks too thick but I never have had to.

Season, add the bread and serve drizzled with olive oil if you want, but I never do.

Solid coconut massage oil

It wasn’t long ago that I brought you a bargain basement skincare product. And here is another one. Waitrose has a solid coconut massage oil, ostensibly for babies. It’s a super value £2.89 and it’s great.

It’s totally solid in the jar, which means that, unless you have a super hot bathroom – and I don’t – you need to warm it up first, otherwise you’ll be scraping at it with your fingernails. I chuck it in the bath with me and it goes all liquidy. This also means that it’s warm when you apply it, which I think is very luxurious. I use it on my children and on myself and it leaves skin greasy – don’t try getting dressed in your best silk bias cut dress afterwards – but really soft.

The most AMAZING soft bread baps

My nine year old first made these with a bit of help from her dad. We needed something for burgers so my partner looked in my Dan Lepard Short and Sweet book. I was no doubt upstairs working, but when I came down to have one I could not believe how good they were. The memory of them stayed with me for weeks. The taste was amazing and they were substantial without being heavy.

I made them again recently to house a frankfurter. I have such a weakness for frankfurters and they are of course, mostly crap. I even went to a posh restaurant recently and ordered a hot dog. I can report that it tasted no different to the ones I buy in the supermarket (I do try to buy the best quality ones but, come on, they are hardly a health food).

Note that following the recipe just as it is, these make BIG baps. They were actually a little too big for me so I cut them in half. We froze half of them and late one evening, after we’d got in after a long drive home, we fished them out. They resurrected beautifully. My partner zapped them up in the microwave and they felt fresh and warm. I had one with just butter. I can’t even begin to tell you how good the flavour is, suffice to say that my mouth is watering at the memory.

Once you’ve tasted these, you will feel so cheated every time you eat a cotton woolly bap from the supermarket. And as they’re pretty easy to make, no excuse for not doing them, and freezing some for some very deserving burgers or sausages one Saturday lunchtime. Or hot dogs.

I’d make them smaller next time, so I’d end up with more, smaller baps, and no reason why you couldn’t make them in ‘finger roll’ shapes should you wish to, for sausages shapes. Or hot dogs.

I have a pretty ferocious oven and mine were done after about 15 mins. But do look at the original recipe here and check yours after fifteen and take them to the full 25 mins if you think they need them. Other than that, I had no problems.

Bread bags

You know that recent BBC class calculator that showed there were now, apparently, seven new classes? Well one of the questions was about who your friends are, as in, what they do. There weren’t enough boxes for me to tick because I’m proud that my social circle includes all sorts of people. I’m perfectly comfortable talking to members of parliament, the aristocracy, cleaners, sales people, chief executives. It’s not that I don’t care what people do, I care a lot, as people spend so much time at work and it matters. But I’m fortunate in that I was brought up being able to speak to everyone, as long as they are happy to talk to me and are polite.  I choose my friends according to what sort of person they are, not what they do.

My parents were also immigrants, you see. They did hard physical work at times because they didn’t have a huge amount of choice. That didn’t make them stupid or not worthy of conversation. Far from it, they are two of the most successful people I know. They also spoke two languages, albeit one with an accent. This already made them more accomplished than most of the English people I met. I worked in my mum and dad’s cafe from the age of seven until I was 18. I saw how people treat waiting staff. Not always good. After I became a journalist, my father opened an ice cream shop and when I used to help out, people were generally lovely. But a few would treat me appallingly. If we got talking, how we got talking I’m not sure, but if we did, and they found out what I did, their attitude to me would change. I found that short sighted.

Anyway, the point is that I get invited round to lots of different sorts of houses. And whilst I can hold a conversation with anyone, the area I used to stall over, is gifts.

It shouldn’t be a problem, but I would get into a tizz over what to bring really rich people who are friends but I don’t know really well. I just felt that, as they could buy themselves anything they wanted, what constitutes a gift, a treat? With friends that I’ve grown up with I’m more familiar with their tastes. Thoughtfulness goes a long way towards the currency of a gift.

I remember being invited to the house of a friend of mine once. He was hugely wealthy, had stables, horses, a chauffeur. When we became friends he gave me five phone numbers. His number in the country, his number in London, his number in the car, his driver’s number and his number in the stables. This was a bit before mobiles were really wide-spread so not as ridiculous as it sounds. Well, not quite. You get the picture. I knew he liked cigars, so I saved up all month to buy him two cigars. Two cigars. Before I took them out he said to me he asked me if I’d like to see his wine cellar. (Really, to choose the wine, this wasn’t foreplay.) As we descended the spiral staircase, I saw row upon row of wines. Really expensive wines like Pichon Lalande, 1982. And then, to my slight dismay, I saw boxes piled high, stuffed full of cigars. I shouldn’t have, as my offering was genuinely meant, but I felt embarrassed and I never gave him my paltry two cigars. This was stupid as he’d have been gracious, but part of me also thought ‘he has loads, I’ll keep these for myself’.

I learned right then that if in doubt, don’t spend money. You can never compete. Or, I can’t. Make something. I’d always known this as it’s in the very structure of my DNA, being Italian where no-one goes into a house without a small jar of something home made or grown. Be it some biscuits, a jar of passata, perhaps a dishcloth full of hazelnuts or some limongello. But I’d somehow forgotten. The first time I made something home made was for my friend K. This was the sort of girl who would take me to her house for the weekend, and blow £80 in a deli on ‘breakfast’.  I couldn’t compete with her wealth. So I made her a cake. As I handed it over she said (slightly teary eyed as I remember) “in all the years people have been coming to my house, no-one has ever made me anything”.

This is a rather roundabout way of telling you about bread bags. If, like me, you make bread for people then what do you give it to them in? Not a plastic bag, as you’d lose your lovely crust. A fancy dishcloth perhaps, but who has those? Plus if they’re really nice dishcloths I don’t want to hand them over. Look, my generosity only goes so far. These bags are great. They have tiny air holes in them so they let the bread breathe (and therefore they also let out any crumbs and flour that’s lurking around the crust). They’re inexpensive and they’re better and cheaper than the Lakeland ones  which were too big in the wrong way (long but not correspondingly wide). I got the 30cm x 40cm ones but they also come in different sizes and I paid about £2.88 for 25. (Lakeland ones are £3.29 for 12.) My Lakeland bags also kept breaking when I put the bread in. So far I’ve not had that problem with these.

Here is a close up where you can see the tiny holes. I do apologise for the pictures. They aren’t great. For some reason it was hard to capture what I wanted to. But it’s really the bread wot’s the star here, the bag is simply a method of transportation.


Isla bikes

Six years ago, I wrote about children learning to cycle. Whilst researching the piece, I spoke to someone from the CTC.

He told me about a new company that was starting up, run by someone called Isla. I rang her and we had a chat and I mentioned the company in my piece. It was so nice to actually speak to someone who ran her own company and not a PR representative of a huge cycle manufacturing chain.

My eldest was then about three and I was looking for a bike for her, so decided to buy a balance bike. I’d seen loads of the wooden versions around London but they really annoyed me for some reason and, at the time, Isla’s Rothan was much cheaper than the other metal versions around (I think she vastly underpriced her bikes in the early months).

Image 2

The reason Isla bikes are so good, but also what makes them not the cheapest you can buy, is that they are made with components that are specially made for children’s bikes, not scaled down versions of adult bikes.  Hence brakes are easy to apply: they’re not stiff, but have a lovely, easy, action. I think this is really important for little folk with their tiny hands. IBs also hold their value incredibly well. Look on eBay and you’ll see what I mean.  And they look great. Our bike man said that my daughter’s Isla bikes were the best quality children’s bikes he’d ever seen. You can read more about what makes them so good here.

You can of course buy cheaper children’s bikes and if that’s what you want to do, go right ahead. I learned to ride on a bike far too small for me, up and down the corridor at my aunt’s house in Italy. The moment I got my own bike (I was TWELVE), I was able to ride it straight away.

Both of my girls have always had Isla bikes (it helps with the value for money thing if you can pass them down the sibling chain), from the Rothan, through the Cnoc and the Beinn. Because my children have unfeasibly long legs, I always ring up for advice before purchasing and you should too if your children have very long or short arms, of if you’re not sure of sizing. And although my eldest learned to ride on the balance bike, Rothan, she still decided she needed stabilisers on her pedal bike when she graduated to one.

Today Isla bikes launches in the US. So all of my readers in the US can also buy one.

*Disclaimer. I bought all of our bikes at full price for years, but the last two years Isla has, exceptionally, given me a discount on my children’s bikes (I think I’ve bought two with a discount) as she credits me with helping her launch her business. Of course she would have done it all by herself.

Soy and ginger chicken

This is a fantastic recipe. So easy to put together, so tasty and pretty healthy too. It’s from the excellent Donna Hay magazine. I’m sure you could make it with cheaper chicken cuts too, like thighs or drumsticks. You may need to give it a bit longer if so.

I found that my chicken was done but the sweet potatoes weren’t quite as frazzly as I wanted them, so I took the chicken out and turned the heat up for another five minutes. You could easily prep it when you’re not so busy and put it all together at the last minute. Which means you’ve pretty much got dinner on the table in 25mins. Even if you don’t, the most tiresome thing is the peeling of the sweet potatoes. I served this with wilted spinach. Serves four.

for the marinade

60ml soy sauce

finger’s worth of fresh ginger, peeled and grated or chopped finely

2 cloves of garlic, crushed or finely chopped. I HATE garlic crushers so I chop mine

60ml of vegetable oil

2 teaspoons of caster sugar

the rest of it

4 x chicken breasts with skin on or other chicken pieces

The recipe calls for 600g sweet potatoes, scrubbed clean but unpeeled and thickly sliced. I only used two for us (four of us), peeled them and sliced into thin wedges

1x 400g chickepeas, drained, rinsed

sea salt and black pepper, natch

A cup of chopped mint leaves – save this til last

Green stuff to serve

Preheat oven to 220C if you’re going to cook this straight away. Place the marinade stuff in a jar and mix together.

Place the chicken, sweet potatoes and chickpeas in a large baking tray. Drizzle half the marinade over the top and season with salt and pepper. Roast for about 20mins or the chicken is cooked and the potatoes are as you like them.

Now, add the mint to the rest of the marinade, mix together and pour over just before serving.


Ali’s oatmeal pancakes

Ali is someone I’ve known for about, ooh, nine years. I ‘met’ her on line via I Want My Mum, which was a parenting forum I used to co-run. I’ve never actually met her but we seem to share similar tastes in certain foods and I always look at her recipes with particular interest.

She shared this recipe for oatmeal pancakes which I wanted to try. We’ve been making these pancakes for a good few years now. And whilst I love them, and they do contain fruit, I’m aware they have a lot of flour in them. Even though we now always make them with half white/half wholemeal, we always seem to be starving a few hours after eating them and without wanting to sound like a carb bore, if I have these for breakfast, and say a sandwich for lunch, I feel really carbed out.

But! Ali’s pancakes are mostly oatmeal which is so good for you. They do contain a bit of flour but not much comparatively. You do need to make them the night before, but I don’t actually mind this now that I am an organised mother-type and not a rock and roller who traipses into the house at 4am wanting immediate carb satisfaction.

But anyway, my friend Emily has also reported great success with just warming the milk and oats up the morning you make them, so you could also try that.

I was almost quivering with hunger when I made these on Saturday morning so too greedy and impatient to take a pic. We served ours with live yoghurt and blueberries and strawberries. And maple syrup.

The recipe below is halved and, really, for me to have handy as we found the original made too many for us. Although we are four, my two girls eat just one or two pancakes. Do follow Ali’s original recipe though if you are more than two adults and two small children with bird-like appetites.

Here they are, Ali’s oatmeal pancakes:

65g oatmeal, the proper pinhead stuff. I have some by a company called Rude Health

125g plain full fat, live yoghurt, I used Greek style as that’s what we always have

112g milk, I used semi skimmed organic as that’s what we get

half a teaspoon of honey, mine is from the beehives of Gabrielle Palmer no less (get ME)

15g plain white flour

15g plain wholemeal flour (I now use 30g wholemeal flour and leave out the white flour completely)

half a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda

a big pinch of salt (quarter of a teaspoon kinda thing)

1 egg (note if you have very small eggs use two)

The night before. Mix together the oatmeal, milk, yoghurt and honey. Leave in the fridge overnight. This is the ideal, if you can’t then even just an hour soaking helps.

The next morning, add the rest of the ingredients and mix well.

I use a cast iron griddle. Mine is this one if anyone is interested and it’s brilliant for pancakes. I put a tiny drop of oil and spread it around with a silicon pastry brush (if it were natural bristle they would melt) and then put on three tablespoons of mixture per pancake and on that griddle I can fit three pancakes. When I say tablespoons I mean just the spoons I eat soup and puddings with, not an actual measure.

Turn the pancakes when they look ‘holey’ on top. About two minutes each side. Use your common sense here..I keep my warm in the warming drawer but a low oven would work. Or dish them out, as they’re done, to eager recipients.

They are delicious and everyone in my family loves them and declared them much better than our regular ones. They are nutty, ‘bitey’ and so much more filling than regular pancakes. So good to have that amount of oatmeal (and yoghurt) in pancake form. Of course we won’t talk about the amount of maple syrup I marry them with..

Try these this weekend. Next I must try Emily’s sourdough pancakes.

Eating notes: I have kept this mixture, i.e. the whole mixture with the eggs and flour etc added, overnight when I made too much one greedy Saturday; it keeps really well until the next morning when you can have pancakes all over again.

Dan Lepard’s raisin (and perhaps cinnamon) bread

The actual recipe that I followed, now that I am on a fresh yeast baking frenzy, was from Dan Lepard’s The Handmade Loaf. If you haven’t bought this yet I really recommend you do.

The recipe in THL calls for fresh yeast, rye levain (although I used regular levain as I no longer keep a rye one), rye flour as well as white flour. It’s got a good old list of ingredients, including cinnamon which I didn’t use as this loaf was for my mother and I wasn’t sure if she liked it or not.

I don’t really have a problem eating “too much” bread, like I know some people do.

However. There have been three types of bread that I’ve come across recently that have caused me to eat beyond the realms of comfort. This bread was one. Dan’s soft baps (from Short and Sweet), which I shall report on another time, were another, and this schiacciata that I made and in which you will see I repeat myself about the bread eating thing, was another.

The dough to this bread is fairly sturdy. I wasn’t overly confident of it coming out okay. But it did. It was lovely. So tasty, moreish and would be excellent with something savoury like cheese but I ate it just on its own, like a not sweet cake. I loved it. And I had some the next day, dipped into my caffe latte.   I especially like it in a ring shape. I do, of course, have a special banneton but if you don’t then you can just use a tea towel, pulled through the hole in the dough.


Anyway. I asked Dan if there was as recipe on line that was similar to the Raisin and Cinnamon bread in HML, and he said to try this one, but he said to sub raisins for the cranberries.

Camping mats

Steady yourself on the back of a chair because this is not about anything to do with carbs or food.

It’s about camping, or what to sleep on.

Now, my entree into camping was via the army. And we didn’t have fancy things like camping mats. We could only light fires whilst remaining tactical and as fires could be seen from the air, they were hardly ever lit. So instead of eating sausages, and singing, as I had envisaged, we ate cold things out of tins labelled “bully beef” and singing was obviously completely out of the question.

We had to sleep with our personal weapons, in our sleeping bags; and as mine was a Sterling sub machine gun, it was the very opposite of going to bed with a cosy hot water bottle. The tents were also tiny, so you could only crawl into them. No standing up, you could hardly sit and you slept in a sleeping bag, with two kilos of cold steel with you, on a ground sheet on often very lumpy ground.

It was, in short, miserable. You hardly ate, you hardly slept. My only saving grace was that I was very, very young. Just 18, so these things didn’t really matter. But that is, perhaps, why I didn’t camp again for decades and when I did I looked longingly at bell tents and wanted to hang bunting off every surface.

When I did go camping again it was first to a luxury camping site (‘glamping’, I hate that term but there you have it) and then in a family member’s back garden. I say back garden, but this being Norfolk it was 4 acres. We had a lovely tent that you could stand up in (Vango Icarus 500 if you’re interested), that had a separate dressing area. We had pillows and duvets. No bunting, but I did have battery powered fairy lights and I did buy these rather fabulous camping mats: Vango Adventure Sleeping mats.

Now, there seem to be three different things you could sleep on (other than just the ground of course). A self inflating mat (SIM), a camping mat that is foam, and you roll it out and it doesn’t do anything, and an air bed. I didn’t want an air bed, too much faffing and blowing and they make a noise every time you turn around and can deflate and..I just didn’t want one.

I didn’t want just a foam roll thing, either. They’re fine for exercising on but in order to be comfortable to sleep on they’d roll up to be the size of an oak tree. I was interested by the self inflating mats. You get them in various thicknesses and widths. I went for the largest for me and my partner – XL width and 7.5cm thickness and with hindsight, I wish I’d got these for the children as well as I think it was a false economy (ours were £45 each, theirs were about £30) getting them the smaller ones (theirs were still 5cm thick though). It’s not that the smaller ones aren’t perfectly adequate, they are, but once you’ve tried the big ones, well the standard mats seem just that…standard.

Plus if we’d got four the same, we could more easily have doubled them up for EXTRA LUXE.

Anyway, SIMs have a valve at one end. If you are the sort of camper who walks places carrying your own kit then stop reading now.  You’ll want mats that are light and thin so that they fold down really small. This isn’t them. It isn’t that these mats are giant, they’re not, but you wouldn’t want to carry these too far, not with a sleeping bag etc as well. So you unfurl these SIM from the confines of their stuff sacs, open the valve and watch in awe as they INFLATE THEMSELVES. It’s to do with equalising the pressure inside and out and something to do with physics. You don’t walk on them when they’re inflating, you just watch in awe and call people over. And after about five minutes, they’ve have inflated, you close the valve thing and you’re ready to sleep on it either in a sleeping bag or with sheets and pillows and down-filled duvets.

I think I got mine from Simply Hike but you can get good deals at various places, just do a search. I know it’s not a cheap outlay, but if you’re going to go camping in a car and don’t have to travel far with your kit, these are really great and, I think, have a life beyond camping as you can (and we have) used them as spare beds and I’ve slept on them in people’s houses. With their permission. Plus, I’m not 18 anymore so a good night’s sleep has far reaching effects.

Baking with fresh yeast. Milk loaf

When I was a child, my mother would cook regularly with fresh yeast. We would have pizza every Friday night, which she would  make in a large rectangular tin; leaving one small section free of tomato sauce for me, as I didn’t like it.

Then the local supermarket stopped stocking it and we bought it from this ‘exotic’ – at the time – little shop that was a Chinese health food shop and I’d have to go far into the back to find the small squares of fresh yeast.

These days it seems impossible to find commercially. Which surprises me given the resurgent interest in baking. Those who do buy fresh yeast either beg it from the bakeries of huge supermarkets or order it in in bulk.

I believe it was the latter that my friend Wendy did, as she took delivery of 2K of yeast. Wendy cooks and bakes ALOT and hangs out with professional bakers and really knows her shit where food is concerned (and antiques). Generous to a fault, she offered a large chunk of this purchase to me and thus it was that on Saturday, the postman delivered half a kilo of fresh yeast to my Suffolk mail box.

(n/b: Wendy tells me you can also get fresh yeast from local bakeries, but I have none near me.)

It had been decades since I touched fresh yeast. I’d forgotten how squidgy it is. But I immediately set about baking with it. When I first bought Dan Lepard’s The Homemade Loaf, the book that set me off on my sourdough journey, I was disappointed to see how many recipes called for fresh yeast. Dan helped me convert fresh yeast = dried yeast but the moment I have to substitute an ingredient for another I feel like I’ve failed (it’s okay, I’ve had years of therapy).

I have never cooked with fresh yeast so I started off with something simple, which is Dan’s Milk Loaf in the Handmade Loaf. It uses plain and strong bread flour, butter, milk, maple syrup and fresh yeast. It was so easy to make. Minimal kneading, then a final prove of an hour and a half. As it was very cold in my kitchen yesterday, I let it go a little longer. I’m so used to being upstairs working when my timer goes off for sourdough. And being able to play loose with timings, and just ignoring the timer, that when I came down to see the loaf, I was a bit shocked to see how much, and how fast, it had risen and for a moment worried that I had let it overprove. But no.

It came out gloriously. It looks like a pair of breasts (a friend thought this was why it was called milk loaf..) this is because you put it in in two ball shapes, although you could do it in whatever shape you want; and the crumb is superb. Wendy tells me this is not a traditional shape for a milk loaf, that it should be cooked in a cylindrical tin with ridges but I do not have one.


We all had the most delicious ham sandwiches made out of it. It’s an old fashioned taste and not like anything you could buy. I adore my sourdough, but it was so nice to be able to have a loaf on the table in time for lunch, having just thought about baking it in the morning.


Because I understand how incredibly frustrating it is being given a recipe which ingredients you don’t have, here are Dan’s milk loaf recipes containing more readily available dried yeast. I might try his chocolate chip milk buns next…

I froze the rest of the fresh yeast, in 15g batches in little sealed bags. Weighing it out, tipping them into those little bags. My eldest helped so we had quite a production line going.

Update. I made them into rolls and divided up half and put chocolate chips in them. The rolls make great sandwiches for picnics, the chocolate rolls make a nice, not too sweet alternative to a pain au chocolat, dipped into caffe latte.



Day after notes: This bread stales up pretty quickly. It makes great toast/toasted sandwiches though, so no fear. Also we just had it several days old made into French toast and I can report that it was excellent.