Double the fun

I have a new respect for the Cbeebies ‘I Can Cook’ lady. She cooks with five or six children on each episode, and having recently made cupcakes with two toddlers, I don’t know how she does it. Granted, her children are older and their ingredients are pre-measured and laid out on the table ready for them.

Small Boy and I had been invited over to a friend’s house for an afternoon of baking, and I’d offered my favourite chocolate cupcake recipe. It used American measurements, but that was OK as I brought my measuring cups, and it turned out my friend had a set too. Who knew they were so common?

A small difficulty arose when I realised I’d forgot to bring a copy of the recipe, but luckily I’d e-mailed it to my friend so she could bring it up on the laptop. We searched out all our ingredients and filled the table with bags of flour and sugar, tins of cocoa powder and baking soda, eggs and oil.

Then the real work began: making sure each child had something interesting to do. Small Boy 1 and Small Boy 2 were poised at each end of the table, wooden spoons ready. I made a mistake at the beginning by asking ‘Who wants to sift the flour?’ Naturally there were two immediate cries of ‘ME!!!’ from either end of the table. I gave the job to Small Boy 1, simply because he’d done it before, and swiftly began dumping flour and cocoa powder into his sieve while promising Small Boy 2 that his job would be equally prestigious.

While Small Boy 1 was flinging cocoa across the work surface (proving that experience does not equal expertise), I moved to the other end of the table and hastily scooped three quarters of a cup of sugar into the second bowl and asked my friend for a third of a cup of oil. ‘Please stir these together, and make sure all the sugar gets wet. Try to keep it all in the bowl.’ Given something goopy to work with, Small Boy 2 stopped shooting envious glances at the sieve.

While I was trying to keep the two boys happy and relatively neat, my friend performed the vital task of finding the right ingredients and putting the proper amount into the measuring cups. I should have given her the measuring spoons as well. As I rushed over to the laptop to glance at the recipe again, I somehow mistook ¾ teaspoons of baking soda for 3 teaspoons, and I plopped it into Small Boy 1’s sieve.

I knew what I’d done immediately, but it was too late. Baking soda is a powerful substance, and I imagined our chocolate cupcakes replaced by little chocolate balloons. I conferred with my friend.

Me: ‘The only solution is to double the recipe!’

Friend: ‘OK.’

(I’ve occasionally been accused of being bossy.)

So we rushed around putting extra sugar, oil, flour, cocoa, salt and egg into the bowls, then stood the boys down and, to avoid favouritism, let an adult stir the wet ingredients into the dry ones. Small Boy 1 licked his fingers and rubbed cocoa into his hair while Small Boy 2 (remaining surprisingly tidy) put the cupcake liners into the tin.

Most of the batter went into the cupcake liners and then into the oven, and the rest of it was spread over two wooden spoons and given to the little cooks. (‘Who’d like to lick a spoon?’ ‘ME!!!’)

We ended up with 24 cupcakes instead of 12, and they were pretty delicious. My friend kindly gave us half of them to take home, and Small Boy 1 dissolved into happiness.

The recipe we used makes 12 cupcakes. It’s McCalls Best Chocolate Cupcakes, from the 1963 edition of the McCall’s Cookbook:

  • 1 cup sifted all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup sifted cocoa powder
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/3 cup oil
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk or sour milk (easiest way to get this is to put 1/2 tsp lemon juice or vinegar in a cup and fill it up with milk to the half-cup mark)
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 egg

Preheat oven to 375F (gas mark 5). Place paper liners in 12 cupcake cups.

Into large bowl, sift flour with cocoa, sugar, soda and salt.

Add shortening, buttermilk and vanilla and beat until mixed. Add egg, and continue beating 1 minute longer.

Spoon batter evenly into prepared cupcake cups, filling about half full.

Bake about 20 minutes, or until surface springs back when gently pressed wtih a fingertip.

Remove to wire rack; cool thoroughly. Frost as desired.

You can make these slightly more healthy if you like. The last time I made this recipe at home, I used half plain white flour and half whole-grain spelt flour, and it turned out perfectly. Also, although it calls for a teaspoon of salt, I just used 1/4 teaspoon.

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‘I want you to tell me a story about penguins!’

Once upon a time there were three penguins, who lived with their mother on an iceberg. One day they decided to go out and seek their fortune.

The first penguin went out on the iceberg and met a man with a load of snowflakes. ‘Excuse me, sir,’ she said. ‘Can I have these snowflakes to build a house?’ ‘Certainly,’ the man said. So the penguin built herself a house of snowflakes.

The second penguin went out on the iceberg and met a man with a load of seal blubber. ‘Excuse me, sir,’ she said. ‘Can I have this seal blubber to build a house?’ ‘Certainly,’ the man said. So the penguin built herself a house of seal blubber.

The third penguin went out on the iceberg and met a man with a load of ice blocks. ‘Excuse me, sir,’ she said. ‘Can I have these blocks of ice to build a house?’ ‘Certainly,’ the man said, ‘I can find plenty more – this is an iceberg.’ So the penguin built herself a house of ice blocks.

The first penguin lived happily in her snowflake house until, by and by, a polar bear came along. ‘Little penguin, little penguin, let me in!’ the polar bear said. ‘Not by the hair on my chinny … beaky … beak … thing,’ said the penguin. ‘I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down,’ the polar bear said. So he huffed, and puffed, and blew the snowflake house down. But the little penguin jumped out of the window and ran off to join her sister in the house of seal blubber, and they lived together and were happy.

By and by, the polar bear came along. ‘Little penguins, little penguins, let me in!’ said the polar bear. ‘Not by the … no, we won’t!’ said the penguins. ‘I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll … eat this house, ’cause it looks pretty tasty,’ said the polar bear. So while the polar bear was eating the house made of seal blubber, the little penguins ran off and joined their sisters in the house of ice blocks, and they were very happy.

By and by, the polar bear came along. ‘Little penguins, little penguins, let me in!’ said the polar bear. ‘No’, the penguins replied. ‘I’ll chew my way through these ice blocks,’ said the polar bear. So it took a big bite out of the house made of ice blocks, but it broke its tooth on the ice. ‘Ow! Yipe, yipe, yipe!’ shouted the polar bear, and it dived off the iceberg into the sea and swam away, never to return.

And the three penguins lived happily ever after in their house made of ice blocks.

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Easy-Peasy Cheesecakes

I didn’t know there were cooking shows for children until recently, but it really is a fabulous idea. Cbeebies has at least two that we’ve seen, ‘I Can Cook’ and ‘Big Cook Little Cook’, and Small Boy enjoys both. He invariably wants to cook whatever he’s seen prepared, especially if it’s on ‘I Can Cook’, which shows small children preparing an easy dish and then eating it. I’ll do whatever we have the ingredients for, because I like seeing him enthused about cooking.

‘Easy-peasy pizzas’ are a favourite, along with tarts and cakes of all kinds, but probably the easiest recipe I’ve seen is for individual Lemon and Lime Cheesecakes. I’m not going to reproduce the show’s recipe here, because I changed it completely (we simply didn’t have mascarpone cheese, fresh lemons or limes). Here’s our take on it: 


  • 3 digestive biscuits (with or without chocolate, but I think the chocolate goes beautifully with the lemon and lime juice in the cheesecake)
  • 200 grams cream cheese
  • 3 T yoghurt
  • 2 T icing sugar
  • 1 T lemon juice
  • 1 T lime juice

You’ll also need some small glasses to hold your cheesecakes. We usually make 3 individual cheesecakes from this recipe.

Crush digestive biscuits and put equal amounts of biscuit crumbs into each glass.

In a medium-sized bowl, combine all the other ingredients and beat together until smooth (a good job for a child with a wooden spoon). Then spoon into the glasses on top of your biscuit-crumb crust. Serve immediately.

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You’re a cheesy star (or not)!

I borrowed Nigella Lawson’s mammoth tome How to Eat from my mother-in-law over the weekend, and while I’m not thrilled with the organisations (it’s all menus, rather than being divided into meats, fish, vegetables, desserts, etc.), the section on feeding babies and small children was very enjoyable. For one thing, it was nice to find that a celebrity chef (with children) was recommending the things I’ve been doing by instinct – feeding him the same things I feed myself, trying out exotic flavours and ingredients, just assuming he’ll like vegetables and cooking accordingly. And the ‘Cooking with Children’ section was inspiring. As we were trapped inside by heavy rain all day, I decided to try the recipe for cheese stars.

Small Boy has been barred from the kitchen ever since he pulled a cup of hot tea down on himself at 18 months, although I really ought to get off my backside and make the room more child-friendly. To include him in cooking, I’ll bring vegetables out to the dining room table and chop them there, offering him a taste and letting him gather scraps and put them in the compost bucket or the stock bag (I collect vegetable ends and make stock out of them at the end of the week). So he watched from the gate as I weighed ingredients, and then I brought everything out to the table so he could help.

Small Boy stirred the flour and chilli powder while I grated the cheese, and then he stirred that in. I melted the butter (recipe said ‘softened,’ but I never have the patience and the house is cold) and mixed it in by hand, then let Small Boy put some flour on the pastry sheet. I rolled the dough out thinly and guided Small Boy as he cut out shapes.

I’m pretty sure Nigella’s vision did not include me wrestling the rolling pin away from my son and shouting ‘No, you’re mashing it! Darn it, stop sticking holes in the dough!’ and similar endearments.

We couldn’t find the star-shaped cookie cutter, so we have bird-shaped biscuits, circles, clovers, large plus-signs, lips and whatever other shapes we could find among Small Boy’s collection, which he usually uses with play-dough. Got the things on the cookie sheet eventually, though, and they turned out beautifully. Ten minutes later, we were happily drinking squash and munching cheesy biscuits, and I was trying not to think about the vast expanse of floury carpet in the dining room.

I quote Nigella’s recipe below:

  • 50g self-raising flour pinch cayenne (we used chilli powder)
  • 25g softened butter (I needed a few more tablespoons to make the dough stick together)
  • 80g finely grated red leicester
  • 20g freshly grated parmesan, about 4 tablespoons (for cheese, we used 80g grated double gloucester and 20g medium cheddar, which was what we had in the fridge)

Preheat oven to gas mark 6/200C. Mix all ingredients together in a bowl. Dust a surface with flour, roll out about 2 1/2mm thick, cut out shapes and put on non-stick or lined trays in the preheated oven for about 10 minutes. Look after 8. The biscuits continue to crisp up while they’re cooling on a rack.

Nigella says it makes 25 stars, but we got almost 40 biscuits of varying sizes. Everyone’s cutters are different.

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The joy of curry

I love curry. I used to say ‘the spicier, the better’, but then I moved in with a chili-intolerant man and started making them much milder. Now I still love spice, but I can’t take as much heat as I used to. No big deal – I just serve the chilis on the side where people can add them as they please.

I also used to put salt in my curry – and in everything, really. Like most people, I added a dash or more of salt to whatever I was cooking, although I didn’t really know how much of that salt I was tasting. I understand we grow accustomed to the flavour after a while and need more salt to get the same kick.

Then my chili-intolerant man was diagnosed with high blood pressure – extremely high, although it’s now under control. At the time, I went into health-conscious overdrive and set about eliminating salt, that bane of blood pressure, from our diets. To stop adding salt to my cooking was the work of a moment, but when I started examining the ingredient lists of our packaged foods, I was shocked at how much salt they contained. Puffed rice cereal contains .39 grams of sodium per 30 gram serving – and who’s going to eat just 30 grams? We fill our bowls and get a lot more salt than we bargained on – and we can’t even taste it! I won’t even go into the amount of salt in biscuits and cookies, crackers, crisps, etc. Even condiments and mixed spices contain salt – even curry powder, which we used a lot of at the time.

We live down the street from a very well-stocked Indian grocery, with shelves of different whole and ground spices. How hard could it be, I thought, to make my own curry powder?

Incredibly easy, as it happens. I looked at recipes online (they were all different) and devised a list of ingredients that looked similar to what was contained in our storebought curry powder, without the salt.

Having recently received a small mortar and pestle for a wedding present, I decided to go all the way and bought whole spices, roasting and grinding them myself. The roasting took about 30 seconds per spice, and I had to take them out quickly before they burned. I’ve since learned to turn down the heat and make the process a bit more controllable. I was also given a much larger mortar and pestle, which makes the job much more enjoyable – it even handles the fenugreek seeds, hard little bullets that are exhausting to grind by hand.

The first time I made curry powder, I carefully mixed and added turmeric until it looked and smelled like the stuff in the can from Sainsbury’s. It was delicious, but since then I’ve seldom made the same recipe twice. I’ve gone from carefully measuring out teaspoons of mustard seeds to pouring a bit into my hand, judging it by eye and tossing it into the frying pan. Here’s a rough recipe for what I made this morning:

  • 2 teaspoons whole brown mustard
  • 2 teaspoons whole cumin
  • 3 teaspoons whole fenugreek
  • 2 teaspoons whole fennel seeds
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 3 teaspoons ground coriander (coriander seeds are very difficult to grind — the little husks go everywhere)
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

In a dry frying pan over medium heat, roast the mustard seeds until they are fragrant and slightly darker. Immediately dump into a mortar and pestle, grind into powder and pour into your curry powder jar. Do the same with the other whole spices. Add the ground spices to the curry powder jar, put on the lid tightly and briefly admire the visual effect you get from the different layers of spices. Shake the jar vigorously until the spices are well mixed. Remove the lid and sniff. Ahhhhh …

That’s the most delightful part of the whole exercise, actually – the incredible smell that fills your house as you roast and grind these spices. You don’t get that from store-bought powder. And you can grind the spices in a spice grinder or small food processor, of course, but then your arms and shoulders wont’ get the kind of workout they get from grinding up 3 teaspoons of whole fenugreek – or more if you make a double recipe, which I usually do.

The powder keeps very well, but once I started using it, I found I was using a lot more than I had in the past. I was cooking more curries, but I also found that without the salt, the stuff just tastes a lot better and I wanted more of it in my food.

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Turkey cookies

Our childhoods are partly defined by holiday traditions. A tradition which is unique in my experience is that of painting holiday cookies. As long as I can remember, my mother has been making sugar cookies from a recipe in the old McCall’s cookbook (they use sour cream and nutmeg, and are delicious even without icing), then painting them with different colours of icing. I think it started with Christmas cookies (trees, Santa faces, reindeer, bells, balls, candy canes), then we had Easter cookies (chicks, eggs, flowers) and Thanksgiving cookies (turkeys, autumn leaves, pumpkins).
During a recent visit home, I got to help decorate the Thanksgiving cookies with my mother, who’d been asked to supply some for a church event. I remembered how much fun I’d had doing this as a child and how proud I was when my cookies were praised. It can be a painstaking process if you do intricate designs, and developing a good technique takes a while. Painting with icing is different to using actual paint. The icing, which is coloured with food dye and thinned down with a bit of water, has to be pushed and pulled around the cookie using a small paintbrush. If it’s thin enough to have the consistency of real paint, the icing will soak into the cookie, so what you want is a thin paste but nothing really runny.
For this year’s cookie shapes we had leaves, apples, turkeys, pumpkins, bell peppers and horses. The peppers were a bit of a stretch, but how often do you get to make cookies shaped like bell peppers? We were working to a tight schedule so didn’t get too elaborate, but I had a bit of time toward the end of the evening and took out a red apple-shaped cookie whose icing had already dried. With a very small brush I painted a tiny worm peeking out of the apple, and with the point of a toothpick, I applied eyes and a bit more definition. I left the wormy apple on top of the pile for my mother to find, wondering whether she’d be amused or find it icky.
Twenty minutes later, she was demanding more worms for all the other apples. We finally decided to do just a few and scatter them among the plates of cookies to surprise people.
I’m looking forward to being able to paint cookies with Small Boy in a couple of years. When my niece visited a few Easters ago, the activity was a big hit, so I’m sure he’ll enjoy it as well.

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Journey cake

Journey cake

One of Small Boy’s favourite books is ‘Journey Cake, Ho!’ by Ruth Sawyer. It tells the story of Johnny, who works for an elderly couple on their frontier farm. When they lose all their livestock, they can’t afford to feed him, so he sadly sets off to find another place to work, toting a journey cake that the old woman has baked for him. Along the way, the journey cake falls out of his pack and rolls down the road at top speed, singing as it goes. Johnny chases after it, acquiring a collection of new animals along the way, as a cow, a duck, two sheep and other livestock try to catch and eat the journey cake. At the end of his journey, he’s back at the farm having set up the old couple in comfort again.

Small Boy has memorized this story and hears it every night at bedtime. Leaving aside the dubious provenance of the animals Johnny acquires, I love the book. This evening I was low on ideas and ingredients for tea, so I decided to make journey cakes for him. It was easy, as they’re essentially cornbread pancakes. I made a small amount just in case he didn’t like them:

  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • ½ cup milk
  • 1 Tbs oil
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • a pinch of salt

For authenticity’s sake, I stuck with cornmeal alone (that’s what a pioneer family would have), but they’d hold together better with a mixture of cornmeal and wheat flour. I got the oil good and hot, dropped a spoonful of batter in the frying pan, and pressed it down into a pancake with the back of a wooden spoon. They were very popular with Small Boy, especially when I spread them with a little roasted pumpkin and drizzled on some maple syrup. He was terribly pleased in any case, just because he was eating something he had read about. He would hold up a piece of food and say ‘I’ve got my journey cake!’

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