Monthly Archives: July 2013

Great children’s ruck sack


If your child walks or cycles to school, or even if they don’t but you find they have about five different bits of luggage to carry to school, this is an excellent ruck sack. It has lots of useful pockets (I love a dedicated pocket), it’s well made, has reflective stripes.. but perhaps most importantly, it’s endorsed by the Backcare Charity.

This is the small size, but I’ve found it plenty big enough for a nine year old. But, if you don’t think that will be big enough, there’s also a large size.

£25 from John Lewis.

Watermelon and feta salad. The perfect lunch for a hot day.


Eating watermelon makes me think immediately of southern Italy, where I spent so much of my childhood. It’s so evocative, it almost makes me want to weep.

Childhood life in Italy was so different to life in London. In London we lived in a two bedroomed flat in a mansion block in west London. Opportunities for roaming the streets were few and far between. In Italy, almost from the moment we stepped foot onto the dusty soil of my mother’s home village in provincia di Avellino, we were free. My mother had her mother, cousins, sisters etc to talk to, we had streets to explore and railings to climb and old houses to dare ourselves to enter. I spent most of my childhood summers wearing a pink and white towelling bikini, playing out with friends, until I was called in to lunch, or dinner, or ‘per la merenda’ (a mid afternoon snack). We frequently ate watermelon, spitting the black pips as far as we could, sitting in the shade of the porch, whilst the grown ups had their afternoon siesta.

This recipe is by Ottolenghi from his Plenty book. It doesn’t seem like much but it is plenty (ha ha). Ottolenghi says you should “eat this on the beach, or at least outdoors, on a hot day, with the sun’s rays unobstructed’. It’s a perfect summer lunch and basically, an assembly job.

You take some chilled watermelon which you’ve cut into wedges, some feta which you’ve cubed, some basil leaves which you’ve torn asunder and a small red onion which you’ve sliced thinly if you like (if not, leave it out). You put the melon and feta on a plate, sprinkle over the basil and onion if using and drizzle some olive oil over the top. That’s it. But don’t dismiss it because of its simplicity, it’s got lots going on.

Torrone (nougat) ice cream

IMG_2345 I found this recipe, hidden amongst various others in the Guardian last week. (Scroll down, it’s the fifth one: frozen nougat, torrone = nougat.)

The great news is that you don’t need an ice cream maker to do it as this recipe doesn’t call for one. Rejoice! I’d long wanted to make torrone ice cream as I love ice creams with bits in it. I think this is in large part because my mother once made ice cream with lots of bits in it when I was a child, and it remains a taste I chase. (You can read more about it here in this piece I wrote for the Economist’s Intelligent Life.)

It is not the easiest ice cream to make. But I made it whilst in sole charge of a buoyant four year old and it was fine. I did move my mixer next to the stove, as I wouldn’t want to be carrying boiling sugar and honey across the kitchen.

A few notes about the recipe: I used flaked almonds (which is what David Lebovitz, whose recipe this is, probably meant by sliced almonds). Toast them first, if they’re not already. I did mine in a dry frying pan for a few minutes.IMG_2332The praline bit takes hardly any time at all: be warned.  And you can easily make this in way in advance.

I blitzed half the praline in a food processor and chopped the other half by hand. Experiment to see what you prefer.

Don’t be temped to leave out any of the ingredients, please. Each is carefully considered to compliment the others: this is a highly accomplished recipe. IMG_2339Follow the recipe carefully for the same reason. Make sure you whisk the meringue until quite, quite cold, for example, before folding the cream in.

I found it hard to fold the whipped cream into the Italian meringue (Italian meringue is when you pour a very hot sugar solution into whipped egg whites whilst simultaneously whisking) so I did my best then whisked the whole lot together gently, it didn’t suffer.

This ice cream only uses egg whites. Hurrah! Another use for all those egg whites that I accumulate.

I can’t impress upon you how good this ice cream is. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. I wouldn’t, personally, have it in a cone. You really need to serve it in the plainest of dishes so that nothing distracts from the taste which is complex, sophisticated and high-pitched-singing- inducing delicious.

Couche cloth proving


A couche cloth is a specialist piece of heavy linen cloth, made especially for the final proving of sourdough bread (couche = ‘laying down to sleep’). I’d wanted one for ages but for some reason never got myself one. Isn’t it weird how there are certain things that are perfectly affordable and yet they are regarded as luxuries and we never buy them for ourselves? The couche cloth came under this category for me, even though it only cost a tenner and I’ve easily wasted ten pounds on loads of other crap.

You can of course use a dish cloth in a bowl for proving sourdough, and lots of people do. But, for me, it’s not really the same as it’s clumsy and the dough can stick to a dishcloth, no matter how dusted with flour. I have umpteen bannetons now – hence why the couche cloth seemed like a luxury. But I sometimes wanted to make sourdough baguettes and rolls, just some different shapes occasionally, and I couldn’t do those in the bannetons, because the shape of the banneton determines the shape of the final loaf. And most bannetons are round or baton shaped. Here is a pic of my sourdough rolls, after they’d been proved in the cloth, and on the flipping board about to be flipped onto the baking tray, to go into the oven.


Then one day, I was talking to my mother and she told me about how she and my grandmother  used to make bread when she was a girl, and she was telling me all about how they used to lay the shaped dough down in a piece of linen cloth and pinch the cloth up so that the dough held its shape. And I recognised that of course, she was talking about a couche cloth.

Well. Now I knew it was part of my heritage, I knew I had to get one. And with a couche cloth you need a flipping board or planchette. So I put both on my birthday list and I got both. They were bought from the fabulous Bakery Bits.

I got my couche cloth by the metre, going for the 60cm by 1m length, which, weirdly, ends up cheaper (£10.14) than the pre-cut cloth of the same size (£14.40).

I immediately realised that I’d got my couche cloth too big, but that’s no biggie as I cut it in half. The thing with couche cloth proving is that you then either need to keep the dough out for proving or put it in the fridge. And if you put it in the fridge you need to make sure you have a tray big enough to hold your shaped dough AND that, then, your fridge and your oven are big enough to hold the bread when you prove and then cook it. No point making a 3ft long baguette if you then can’t get it into the fridge to prove and then the oven to cook it.

Here are two great videos, that Joanna from Zeb Bakes put me onto, ostensibly to help me with shaping my baguettes (more about baguettes another time). This one shows you a couche cloth in use and this one shows you the flipping board in action.

I dust couche cloths with rice flour. I find it much better than the usually recommended rye flour – my loaves never stick – and also it gives a lovely contrast on the crust of my cooked loaves. And when I’m done, I brush the cloth with a grouting brush which I keep just for that job (being a grouting brush it has stiff bristles). Then I hang them out in the glorious sunshine to dry.

Colouring in for grown ups (oh okay, and children)



A few weeks ago, my friend and one of my editors, Kate linked to a piece on the Guardian about colouring in. On that page you can find ways to download samples form an incredible book called The Secret Garden. Not the secret garden many of us think about, by Hodgson Burnett, but a completely new colouring in book by Johanna Basford, full of intricate pen and ink drawings that you…colour in.


For reasons that I never worked out, I was unable to download and print out the sample pages, which forced me to buy the book, and I’m glad I did. It’s beautiful. My  girls and I sat all afternoon and coloured in (for nearly FOUR HOURS).


There is something incredibly therapeutic about colouring in and this peaceful camaraderie descended upon us, with only minimal bickering over who had the red. We chatted and chatted and laughed and laughed. The eldest and I coloured in with more precision than the youngest, but I have to admit I love the anarchy of younger children armed with a colouring pencil (you do really need pencils for this).


In my column for the Guardian (where I look at family problems)  I’ve always advised going for a drive if you think your child needs to talk. There’s something about the lack of eye contact and the constraints a car presents, that can help chidren talk about what’s troubling them. To this I’d like to also add – colouring in with your child. Perhaps it’s the lack of eye contact again, perhaps colouring in focuses but also empties your mind so you can do a bit of stock taking. Who knows. It works. My two chatted away. Not that they had anything in particular to say, but it struck me that if they did, this was the ideal place to do it.

And then I remembered that the first sort of therapy I ever had, not long out of my teens, the therapy that changed my life and undid all the ‘knots’ in my brain, was art therapy.


The beautiful art of getting things wrong. Or, what happens when you use plain flour instead of strong when making bread.

Saturday morning. 6am. I’ve been up for 45 mins because the bird song wakes me up. This is fine. I like the early mornings when everything is new and quiet.

I’m making bread. Later, we will have visitors and will need to feed eight. I’ve made sourdough several hundred times over the last four years. It is only later that I realise that, without the usual distraction of partner and children, my concentration has failed me and I put plain flour into the loaf instead of strong white.

What will happen? No-one seems able to tell me. I ask on Twitter and Facebook. No-one knows. I feel irritated, not because I think this is a mistake of giant proportions, but because my starter won’t be ready to use again for several hours.  I guess that because plain flour – apparently – has less gluten, it will have less of a scaffold for the air bubbles to climb. Ergo the bread will be less raised, less ‘holey’. Worse things happen in Tesco.

I make the bread exactly as I always do, lots of little, light, kneads with increasing rests. I put it in the fridge and the next morning, Sunday, I take it out. Slash it and bake it.

This is what happens when you use plain flour instead of bread flour. Not nothing. Something. You get a beautiful bread that has more holes in it than one of Michael Gove’s speeches, and tastes wonderful.