Category Archives: Equipment

Bread bakers’ hand scrub

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I often see hand-scrub for gardeners. And yet, I’ve never done any gardening which simple soap and water has not been able to see off.

Bread baking however, is another matter. I make bread about five times a week. Because I use the Dan Lepard method of making sourdough, which involves lots of rests and light kneading, and because sourdough is a high hydration dough, which means it can be a bit sticky, I end up washing my hands a lot. I often go out and realise that I’ve still got dried on bits of dough around my cuticles. I think bakers need handscrubs far more than gardeners, and yet I’ve never seen a bakers’ hand scrub and if there were one, I bet it would smell nauseatingly of fake cinnamon or vanilla. Both wonderful smells but if you want to fill your nostrils with such, you’re better off baking a cake.

This is a great little scrub which you can make with natural ingredients. Don’t make too much in one go, as it’s best fresh (although it keeps for a really long time). It takes off any dried on bits of dough (or anything) really well, and leaves your skin soft, moisturised and clean. If you want to, you can add a few drops of essential oil of your choice.

Also makes a nice present if you’re so inclined.

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You need a clean jar, granulated sugar, olive oil (despite the pic, just use regular not extra virgin), salt and a lemon.

You use one part sugar to one part salt to one part olive oil. So let’s say you use a cup measurement, that would be one cup of sugar to one cup of salt to one cup of olive oil. So two parts dry stuff to one part wet. Then the juice of one lemon. Mix all together, add a few drops of essential oils if you want and that’s it. It will separate out after standing for a while, that’s okay, you dig your hand through the oil and make sure you pick up some of the scrubby salt/sugar. Because I’m so lazy, I often find lemon pips in the mixture. That’s okay.

How to make your own reed diffuser

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Last week I did some radio.

What usually happens when I do radio is that everyone who I know rings me up saying “YOU’RE ON THE RADIO”. Which is why you have to switch your phone absolutely off. I love doing radio, especially when it’s live, because there is part of me that just wants to take over the airwaves and say ‘fuckbollockshitcuntwank’. But of course I never do because then my radio career would be completely over.

But doing radio is a buzz and you come out of the studio all pumped up. So, now that I’ve told you that, quite gratuitously, I can tell you that I came out of Broadcasting House, having been a star for six minutes and as I blinked in the sunshine I realise that my family had quite forgotten about me. They’d gone off on a jaunt and the text messages hadn’t got through so I was completely alone. No idea what to do or where to go.

Now. Being completely alone in the West End is often the stuff of fantasy for me. I love the West End. I was born there, it’s my home. I know almost every shop along Oxford Street. The very thought of being able to wander, aimlessly and without time-limits or being asked if two women can have a baby or what’s a teenager or who decided if we should be happy or how far is it into space or how old was I when I started smoking or did I do drugs and if so were they uppies or downies, well, that thought often replays in my mind when I haven’t got two minutes to rub together.

So here I was. Alone, in the West End with no-one needing anything from me. And of course, I didn’t know what to do with myself. So I went into all the shops until I finally gave myself up to John Lewis, the floors of which I backcombed until I was so up on its stock, I could have donned me an “INFORMATION” sash and diverted any customer to any corner of its emporium.

This is when I discovered that Johnny Loulous has almost an entire floor dedicated to reed diffusers. Reed diffusers are those room fragrance things that cost a fortune and involve liquid in a glass container with sticks sticking out of them. Like the picture above. They are supposed to fragrance a room continuously, but are safer than candles

I’ve been horribly spoiled over the years by expensive fragrance. I discovered Creed when I was 26, and there was no going back. It’s not the only perfume I wear now but I never wear anything that’s cheap. You can’t cheat with fragrance.

Unlike a body perfume, room fragrance doesn’t develop over time. It just is. So if it annoys the fuck out of you when you first smell it, the high chance is, it always will. We have Jo Malone’s Room Sprays in the bathroom (I grew up with an aunt who used plug in air fresheners which was enough to put me off for life. JM room sprays are not cheap but they are beautiful and they last years) and I once stupidly bought a ‘leather one’ – I can’t remember the exact name – hoping it would grow on me. It never did. All it does is really annoy me and I now realise that I don’t like any fragrance that purports to smell like leather anything.

But because I am slightly obsessed with nice smells, but it’s not practical to always light a candle or spray the room, I’ve sometimes looked at reed diffusers and thought about buying one. But a few things irk:

  1. Whenever I’ve smelled them in people’s houses they largely smell of nothing.
  2. They’re a bit 2011.
  3. The really nice ones cost a fortune.
  4. You often can’t get refills so you have to buy the whole thing again.
  5. The containers the fragrance comes in are often overly fancy and annoying and you’re paying for it.

So I got to the department chock full of reed diffusers and started to smell all of them. And the ones I really liked were by True Grace. Two really appealed – Greenhouse, * which smells of tomatoes ripening on the vine, and Wild Lime.

[*Note, I’ve linked to the candle because the room fragrance doesn’t appear to be on the TG website, but it does exist.]

Better yet, they sold refills for £18.50 (the original kit costs £32 which I think is a bit mad. Note: if you buy the refill direct from the True Grace Website, you also get 20 replacement reeds with it; you don’t if you buy it in John Lewis, despite it still costing £18.50 which is annoying).

This got me thinking. Why couldn’t you make your own?

So I did, I bought a refill (Greenhouse), took it home, put half of it in an old, clean Stokes’ Brown Sauce bottle (this is the best brown sauce ever), stuck some wooden skewers in and hey presto. A not cheap, but cheap-er reed diffuser refill for £9 a pop, but full of really extremely nice smelling stuff.

Two tips:

John Lewis also sells replacement reed diffusers for £3 for a bundle of short ones or £4 for a bundle of long ones. Reeds, of course, have little holes in them that the fragrance works up through but honestly? I’ve found wooden skewers work really well too. Don’t tell the fragrance industry though.

Turn the sticks upside down whenever you need to revive the scent. This is why most people’s smells of nothing after a while. If it gets too intense – which it won’t – remove some sticks.

I realise there are wars on. But if there’s not one going on in your home town and you fancy a nicer smelling house, try this.

Making your own yoghurt

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The reason I started making sourdough was because nowhere near where I live does proper sourdough. And even if it did, it would cost a fortune. As it is, making my own bread costs me about 50 pence per half a kilo of flour loaf. That would cost about £7 in a shop.

There is no such imperative to making your own yoghurt. Sure, once upon a time, you could only get really not very nice yoghurt (thin and sour) but, now, supermarkets are full of them. Thick, creamy Greek yoghurt, drinking yoghurt, yoghurt with naughty corners, yoghurt stuffed full of fruit or delicately flavoured with vanilla or coconut. So there’s not a huge heap of point making your own – I may as well come clean.

But here are some reasons to make your own:

If you eat a lot of it, making your own does save money. I made some today which would have cost about £2 in the shop and cost me about a quarter of that.

You know absolutely what goes into it.

You can use it to make frozen yoghurts and cakes (more on these another time).

I also use rather a lot of yoghurt in Ali’s Oatmeal Pancakes which we are totally obsessed with and top them with yet more yoghurt.

You can also make just what you need.

You make it using almost any type of milk.

If you find you’ve run out of yoghurt, which I realise is hardly a crisis, as long as you have some starter and milk, you can make some overnight and have some for breakfast.

If you get any whey off the top (sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t), you can use it to make sourdough (just use it to replace some or all of the water).

You can use it to make your own drinking yoghurts and save a fortune (I’ll write about how to do this next week).

So if you’ve decided to give it a go you should know that you can make yoghurt using no special equipment at all. Just a flask, or even a bowl wrapped in towels and placed in a warm place like an airing cupboard.

But where would be the fun in that.

Regular readers will know I love a gadget. The yogurt maker I have is an electric one by Lakeland. (£19.99 so it will take a while to recoup savings made on making your own, but isn’t that always the way when you buy a gadget. Note: I get 20% discount on Lakeland products.) I liked the idea of an electric one as the temperature is controlled.

Yoghurt, like sourdough, needs a starter to get going. However, unlike sourdough, I find you can’t use a bit of your ‘old’ yoghurt to make a new batch. I find the cultures in the yoghurt weaken over time. I know some people have written about having a starter going since year dot. But this hasn’t been my experience. So what I do is buy some organic Greek style yoghurt (because that’s what I like) and freeze it in an ice cube tray and then take it out and defrost one cube per half a litre of milk (approx).  I find that one small pot of bought yoghurt provides starter for about eight batches of my own. Probably more. I was never great at maths.

You can make yoghurt using UHT milk, in which case it’s even simpler as you just use the UHT milk (at room temperature) and go straight to the bit where you put it into the yoghurt maker with the starter. Don’t dismiss this totally. I have a litre of organic UHT in the cupboard for yoghurt making emergences.

I’m totally aware of how that sounds.

So this is what you do. Get some milk, about 400ml. Don’t sweat it if you have a bit more or less. I use organic milk; either semi skimmed or whole milk. I have truthfully found no difference at all in the end product and so I use what we have. Whole milk is much better for you (less sugar) but we only get it twice a week so I usually have semi-skimmed and that’s what I use; the yoghurt in the picture was made with semi skimmed and it is so thick and creamy.

If you want to guarantee really creamy yoghurt use two tablespoons of skimmed milk powder. You stir it into the  milk before you boil it (or into the UHT milk before you add it to the starter, make sure it’s dissolved). I always use it.

I do, of course, have a digital probe thermometer which I put in and it’s great as it also has an alert so tells you when it reaches a certain temperature (more on which this is useful in a moment). As soon as it reaches 100C (at which point it will froth up so you have to be on it), take it off the heat and leave it. Note: it takes longer to cool down milk for yoghurt than it takes to heat it up so be prepared.

(Note: all equipment that you use to make yoghurt, such as a probe thermometer etc must be really clean.)

Now, yoghurt is made from milk due to two types of of bacteria: Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. These multiply when the milk is at a particular temperature. If the milk is too hot it will kill the bacteria, if it’s too cold the bacteria can’t be bothered to work. This is why it is now crucial that you cool the milk to the right temperature. Some people are able to do this by dipping a clean finger into the milk, if it’s right you should be able to count up to ten with your finger in the milk. I have really cold hands so this is hard for me to get right so I use the digital thermometer to tell me when the milk has reached 44C. This is where the alert comes in.

Why 44C? Well the temperature window you’re aiming for is no warmer than 49C (kills the bacteria above this) and no cooler than 33 (bacteria can’t get going). 44C works really well for me.

When it reaches 44C you mix a bit of the milk with the starter and make sure it’s all well combined, then add the rest of the milk, mix gently but well and put in the yoghurt maker following the instructions for your own particular one.

That’s it. It’s usually done after 6-8 hours. For a milder yoghurt leave for less time but sometimes it’s not set after six hours anyway so you have to go longer. When it’s done, put it straight in the fridge and then later decant into another container (if you want to) and use as you wish. I find it keeps easily for five days, we’ve never had to test it for longer.

A few trouble shoots:

If your yoghurt doesn’t set, it’s usually due to one of three things:

Your starter didn’t have enough bacteria in it. This is why it’s really a good idea to freeze fresh yoghurt and then defrost it just before you need it. There’s no reason you couldn’t freeze your own yoghurt I suppose, but I always freeze shop bought as I think that way you’re starting with a really fresh culture.

Your milk was too warm or too cold. Temperature is key.

You may get some whey on the top, either stir through or drain off and use it to water certain plants (blueberries love them, but dilute it, about 1/10 parts water and note I’m not a gardener, this is just what I’ve read). Or as I said above use it to replace water in bread baking.

So to summarise, this is what I use:

400ml of of full cream or semi skimmed milk to make the same amount of yoghurt (i.e a shade over 400ml)

An ice cube size of starter – about 30ml, more if you want the yoghurt to set more quickly and if you want a milder taste (the less time it takes to set, the milder/cleaner the taste, more starter yoghurt means it sets more quickly, in less time).

Two tablespoons of dried milk powder.

Update: February 2014. Since I realised that a teaspoon of maple syrup was only about 15 calories, and the difference such a small amount could make to certain foods, I have been less reticent about using it. Some freshly made, but chilled, yoghurt, with a teaspoon of maple syrup and some soft, squidgy, cut up Medjool dates is really delicious and I’m not one to really say that of yoghurt based desserts.

Best buys for a family summer

IMG_2784Sitting on the beach yesterday, I realised just what a grumpy bastard I am. I think it may be a legacy of working in my parents’ cafe from the age of seven, where I was forced to interact with members of the public (who could be delightful or incredibly awful and I found the whole experience mostly stressful, just never knowing if a psychopath was going to walk in). Or it may be because I am a curious mixture of highly sociable or hermit. But I find situations where I am surrounded by lots of random people hard going. Especially if I am trapped in a sitting situation.

So any sort of theatre, cinema, play experience is not as enjoyable for me as it might be for others. And the beach. I’d enjoy the beach – I adore the seaside – if I could be suspended in some sort of pod, unseen but all seeing. With a supply of water, a toilet and some food. My partner said I should get a beach hut but a) I don’t have a spare £100K and b) that wouldn’t do it as beach huts are on the promenade usually and you get people walking by and looking in. Just the thought of it makes me want to dig myself a cave.

I love the beach in winter, where you can’t really sit but you have to walk and there is no-one about. My idea of heaven is the beach at Orfordness where you are surrounded by unexploded bombs and access is strictly limited.

It is surely no surprise that I chose a career as a writer.  I can’t think of a more antisocial, keeping people at arm’s length job.

This UV tent is as close to a pod as I can get. No-one looks inside. I can experience the wilds of the sea whilst feeling entirely cocooned. I can keep an eye on my children (luckily my partner is not like me and actually plays with them on the beach and *sharp intake of breath* goes into the sea). As long as all my things are in the tent, and I have a good view of my children, I am blissfully happy. It’s a best buy. It costs £65 on the site I link to in my original blog post, but if you do a search for ‘The Shelta UV Protector’ you can find it at other places too. I got mine from Little Explorers but it doesn’t seem to do it anymore, at the time of writing Amazon did it from Safetots for £40.

If you haven’t yet got your Sun San sandals then what is wrong with you? Get some. We spent all day on the beach in ours yesterday and my children paddled in the sea and by the time we got home they looked like new. If you are a regular follower of this blog however, you’d have got yours in April before they largely sold out…

Rather than fighting your children to get sun lotion put on them, don’t forget about UV suits. You can get these almost anywhere (put UV sunsuits into Google). Ours are a mixture of Ozone by Sposh (more on this make in a minute) and John Lewis own make (whose designs this year are really annoying, either pink and ‘girly’ or skulls and supposedly aimed at boys, last year I got a really cool red and grey one for my eldest). Do buy a good make though as the fabric should be properly UV50 SPF. But with a UV suit (I recommend a one piece over a two piece)  most of your child is covered and they can swim and play without you fretting that they need a top up of sun lotion every five minutes.

Now, hats. Many years ago, I picked up three floppy sun hats by Sposh Ozone at Romaine’s Junior Style Sales. What you get at these sales is very hit and miss of course, and I can’t say I saw those hats again at subsequent sales. But at that time, I picked up three hats for a £1 each. They proved to be some of the best things I ever bought for my children. These hats are floppy, have fitted from when my eldest was two to still fitting her perfectly now at aged nine, they give UV protection, wash well, fold up quite small and seem to stay on in all but really high winds. I was never able to find them again until recently when a friend saw a picture of my two girls and asked where their hats were from so I searched again and found them here. (This is the same site I link to for the UV tent, because the place I got mine from – Little Explorers  – doesn’t do the UV Shelter anymore. This site, Sunproof, also does UV suits if you can’t be bothered to look far, but you can get UV suits from most places so shop around.)

At a really good price of a penny under a fiver, postage included (they come in the red that I’ve linked to but also blue). Most other places sell them for £14 odd.

I just stocked up on four more. I really recommend these hats, they are brilliant and look great. I realise that the size we have is large which says fits from 7-14. But we have them and they are interchangeable for my four year old and my nine year old (they are cotton Lycra so slightly stretchy). But buy whatever size you think suits you.

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.

Making your own ice cream cones

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Writing about this most happy of subjects: ice cream, is an attempt to shake off a very bad case of what I guess are called Monday blues.

Although I feel ridiculous writing about ice cream in this weather. I’m in Suffolk and it’s grey and cold. I’m back in 4 ply cashmere, last night we lit a fire, I have loads of stuff to do that I’m optimistically lumped together in an ‘in tray’ formation  (the most useful thing I ever ever read was “we all die with a full in tray so don’t try to clear it”) and I feel as creative as a piece of plain, economy photocopy paper.

So, ice cream cones. What, you may be thinking, is the figging point of making your own? Well, you may live somewhere where you can easily buy those nice sugar cones. I don’t. And last year my local supermarket, Waitrose, seemed to have a run on decent ice cream cones and for weeks and weeks all you could get were a) awful wafer cones or b) awful wafer cones in the shape of a teddy’s head. This is very serious when you are an ice cream maker’s daughter. You cannot serve good gelato in such a receptacle.

Also, I am slightly obsessed with what goes into stuff and if I can make things at home and control the ingredients, then I will. And there is always a deadline to be avoided..I’m involved in a very grown up, serious piece at the moment and when things get a bit de trop for me, I retreat into the whimsy of baking and making. Not least because I have an almost pathological need to achieve. Something. Anything. Even if it’s ‘just’ stepping back and looking at a pile of ice cream cones which I’ve just made, whilst upstairs, there are 1,000 words that remain quite, quite unwritten.

I had, somewhere in the back of the cupboard, an old pizzelle iron/maker. Pizzelle are small waffle biscuits with a fancy pattern on them. You can also roll them up into a mini cone shape. Pizzelle irons are not easy to find in the UK which is a shame.  So, because I thought it would be really frustrating for you, me banging on about how to make your own ice cream cones using something you can’t buy here, I bought a waffle cone maker from Lakeland. I know, so kind of me. [Disclaimer: I get press discount at Lakeland and have done for nearly 16 years.]

So, first and briefly, the machine. It’s £29.99 which isn’t cheap and only you can gauge whether it’s really worth buying it. We eat a ridiculous amount of ice cream in this house so for us, yes it was. It isn’t anything fancy and I can’t tell you if it’s the BEST ice cream cone maker on the market because it’s not a big market.

I can tell you this though: ignore the instructions that come with it as they are crap. If you use the plastic cone shaper that they send you, you will end up crying as it makes for a giant-aperture cone. Just chuck it in the bin. You can roll them by hand, it just takes a bit of practice. Also ignore the recipe that comes with it makes an insane amount.

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How to make plain ice cream cones, the definitive recipe after weeks of testing:

This makes about 20 cones.

75g very soft butter

125g caster sugar

300ml of water/milk. I use 250ml water, 50ml of milk. (I’ve also used unsweetened almond milk and it’s worked just fine.)

250g plain flour (for variations such as wheat free, see below)

1 egg

1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

a pinch of salt

Cream the butter and sugar together. Then add the egg and vanilla extract. Mix together. Add the flour and salt and finally add the water/milk in a steady stream, mixing as you go. Beat well. You need to have a fairly thick but runny batter. If it’s too thick you’ll end up with cones that don’t cook, too thin and they’ll break easily once cooled. So don’t be afraid to experiment. It’s doubtful you’ll need less liquid that I stipulate however. I’m aware I’m sounding very bossy in this post.

Put the waffle maker onto maximum. Don’t even bother with the lower temperatures: waste of time.

I use about two soup spoons of batter. Close the waffle iron down. It takes 3-4 minutes (more like 4 but check after 3) until done. They are done when they are golden in places and dry looking. You will need to experiment a bit with what works for you.

When done, lift out with a spatula. You now have approximately ten seconds to shape your cone or it will set hard. If you’ve cooked it right, you will be able to shape it into a cone just using your hands. I lay mine flat on a chopping board and roll. Not too tightly rolled, or you’ll end up with hardly any room to put the dollop of ice cream. Not too large or you’ll need 2,000 calories worth of gelato to fill it up. It does take practice. Hold it in shape with your hand for a minute, and pinch the end (otherwise ice cream will drip through when you put it in). The cone be hot but you sort of get used to it. Or I did. That’s it, set to properly cool on a wire rack. It does take a bit of time to make them but I find it quite meditative.

They store in the infamous ‘airtight container’. They keep for a week or two, probably longer but they never last that long here.

Variations:

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Chocolate cones:

As above but replace 30g of flour with cocoa powder and up the sugar to 135g. I found these took only 3 mins.

Wholemeal cones:

Yes really! These are really tasty actually. Same as above but do half plain flour and half wholemeal. And healthier too.

Wheat/gluten free

Substitute the normal flour for rice flour. You can also make them chocolate wheat free versions by using 135g sugar instead of 125g, then adding 30g cocoa powder and using only  220g of rice flour.

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Gluten/dairy free

Substitute the normal flour for rice flour, the butter for coconut oil (slightly less: 70g) and the milk for almond milk. These taste totally delicious, and make a very crisps cone; they need slightly longer cooking (3-3 and a half minutes) because of the coconut oil. And, I think because the mixture is thicker, they spread out less and make smaller cones. I really like these.

Remember, generally:  the more liquid you add, the thinner you can get the cones. This is great if you want a very fine cone but it will break more easily.

Home made cones are a bit more fragile than shop bought ones, so handle them carefully.

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.

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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).

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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.

Filling nozzle, the right equipment for the job.

Now that I have become quite, quite obsessed with eclairs and profiteroles, I realised quite quickly that I was lacking a vital piece of kit.

A piping nozzle that was long enough and thin enough to penetrate the choux pastry, but with the hole large enough to let the cream out.

Cheap icing/piping nozzles are a false economy because the really good ones don’t cost that much, about £4-£5 a piece. And most people don’t need that many nozzles because they don’t ice/pipe much. So you don’t need a payday loan to fund this particular habit. And if you do ice/pipe a lot then you must surely appreciate the benefit of having good tools.

Anyway, the one for this job is the Wilton Tip 230. It’s available in lots of places for £4ish. But you can also get this kit for not much more, £6.27 at time of writing, and yet you get four Wilton nozzles and some disposable icing bags. NOTE: the description says ’12 piece set’, well it is if you count the icing bags but you only get four nozzles. One of which is the filling nozzle.

So if you don’t want to slice your eclairs or profiteroles, you simply make a little hole with a skewer or some such, insert this and squeeze the cream in until it starts to come out. It is a bizarrely satisfying ritual, which probably says something more about me than I should let on.

The Tripp Trapp (high) chair. The best chair for babies and children ever in the history of the world.

By the time my eldest was two, I had heard enough about the bloody Tripp Trapp chair. At the time, I co-ran a parenting board (it no longer exists but was fabulous) and all I heard was how AMAZING the Tripp Trapp was. On and on and on the owners would bleat. “Best chair ever,” “amazing, little Johnny can join us at the table, he’s always at the right height for eating and drawing and everything.”

SHUT UP!!! I wanted to cry. I am so contrary that the more people tell me to buy something the less I want to buy it. There are a few, choice, individuals by whom I am insanely influenced. But not many.

My daughter had two Ikea high chairs and perfectly good they were too. One was the Antilop, hugely popular and a best seller. The other was the Blames, but in oak (no longer available). The Antilop lived at my parents’ house, the Blames was at ours. They were fine.

Fine.

But when my daughter got to be two years old, she was too big for the highchairs and wanted to be more independent (actually this happened way before then but I ignored it because goddamit these were the highchairs I had committed to, what did it matter that she couldn’t get in and out of them by herself?). She could of course climb on an adult chair, and she did, but it was big for her and she was never at the right level for eating or drawing or counting her money.

It was at this point that I gave in and bought a Tripp Trapp,  quietly and without telling many people because I was so ashamed. And of course, I realised what all the fuss was about. They are fabulous chairs and had I not been so pig headed or “with a head not even the pigs would eat” as we say in Italian (but we say it in Italian) then I would have had two more years wear out of it. As it is, my eldest is now nine and uses her Tripp Trapp every day, several times a day and has done for the past seven years.

The youngest was in hers from a very young age, about four/five months, when she could sit up unaided, with the babyset attachment. Tripp Trapp now does a newborn set so you can actually put then in it from birth, not that they can eat at the table from birth though, but they can join the family at the table.

So, what’s so goddamn great about this chair?

Well it grows with the child. As they get older you take off the babyset (if indeed you ever used it, obviously I didn’t first time round), you move the seat and footrest up and down according to need.

It looks great, being of northern European design of which I’m so fond.

It comes in lots of different, plain wood finishes/colours.

It’s so easy to clean, unlike some hideous highchairs I’ve seen.

So it’s not as cheap as some highchairs, from £120 new, but you can pick them up on eBay (they hold their value). Personally, I think it’s worth every penny as even adults can use it, so it need never go out of use.

Because it’s height adjustable, children are always sitting in the correct position (well, they are if you adjust it right) with their feet supported.

I think the Tripp Trapp has a smaller footprint than other highchairs. I can’t swear to this, but because of the design it doesn’t seem to have as big a footprint as others with their giant foot span. It also slides very neatly under the table, unlike almost all other highchairs that have a front to them.

My children sometimes sit on the footplate, facing the seat part and use the seat part as a table. You can’t do that with other highchairs.

There is a video in circulation that purports to show a Tripp Trapp falling backwards (the child pushes his feet against the table). Perhaps this is possible, but neither of my children have ever managed this and neither have I, I just slide when I try it. But I thought I’d mention it in case any of the Tripp Trapp haters mention it.

But the biggie for me is something quite subtle. The Tripp Trapp doesn’t come with a tray, in fact a tray goes against everything the makers, Stokke, believe in which is that a baby/child should be at the table, en famille, being part of everything. Not separate.

Anyway. I paid full price for both of mine from Back in Action. What I mean by that is that I didn’t get any special journalist offers or back handers.

I can’t recommend them highly enough. Although it’s taken me seven years to get round to writing this up. If you are thinking of a getting a highchair, don’t be an idiot like me and give in, GIVE IN NOW and buy one.