Category Archives: Food

Merry’s Banana and Sultana Muffins

I’ve mentioned the marvellous multi-talented Merry on this blog a few times before, and if you haven’t discovered the Merrily empire yet you definitely should.  I’ve always considered Merry to be my main source of home ed inspiration and encouragement (and though her big girls now go to school, it seems to me that she still home educates but just in less time!)  Then there’s the fab businesses she runs – Play Merrily, the place to go for quality toys online, and Craft Merrily, for all the Hama beads, Fimo and Loom Bands you will ever need, among many other lovely things.  And I’m continually impressed by Merry’s own crafting – her Instagram feed is full of beautiful pictures of the knitting and crochet projects that she always has on the go.  Frankly it’s enough to make me feel a little inadequate, but Merry is so lovely that I’ll have to let her off.  And now, if all the above wasn’t enough, she has recently got the baking bug, and has moved remarkably quickly from “I don’t do baking” to “I invent my own recipes.  Move over Nigella…

So when I saw this recipe for banana muffins, I knew it would be good and I couldn’t wait to try it.  With my usual forward planning I decided about 20 minutes before supper that it would be a good idea to make them for pudding.  They were so quick and easy that Monkey and I managed to make them in the time it took for Owl to make pesto (with a little help from daddy) and cook spaghetti.  They were very popular (as was the pesto, which probably deserves a blog post of its own) and the children have asked when we can make them again.  I think they’ll be able to make them without much help from me, so the answer is probably once a week at least!

banana muffins

Nigelissima – Instant Italian Inspiration

This post was written by Paul who was also the chef.

Nigellissima most Nigella

The last cook book that came into our house, in March, was Jack Monroe’s “A Girl Called Jack”. At the time we’d been living off tinned tomatoes and lentils for weeks, and fell upon her recipes with the grateful desperation of a family ready to have their lives transformed by adding a beef stock cube and some shredded mushrooms to their terrible attempts at fake Bolognese.

Six months later, on the upward curve of the thriftspend cycle, enter Nigella. Nigella with her simplicity, her glamour, and her insistence on quality. Nigella with her mixture of the commonplace (tomatoes, semolina, lentils), and the expensive (sirloin steak, fresh figs, 70% cocoa chocolate). So, riding the fiscal upswing, we invited friends round and cooked loads of dishes. What’s the point of using a cookbook from a supreme entertainer if you don’t entertain with it?

Nigelissima 3

This was the menu, scaled up for four adults, two teenagers and five children aged 10 to 4:

  • Tagliata
  • Mock Mash
  • Italian Golden Lentils
  • Gnocchi Gratin
  • Meatzza
  • (Broccoli)
  • Instant chocolate mousse
  • Baked figs with honey and cream

Nigelissima 4

Tagliata is delicious. Buy the most expensive sirloin you can afford, make some vinaigrette with added chilli flakes and pour over cherry tomatoes chopped in half, cook the steak properly and slice it after resting, then arrange the whole lot on a plate topped with fresh oregano. Total cost of ingredients £25 – an easy party piece. None left over. Tomato and beef salad – who knew?

Nigelissima 2

Mock Mash was a surprise hit – also none left over. Take semolina and cook in milk, then add parmesan, seasoning and nutmeg. Total cost £5

Italian Golden Lentils was less popular, but probably because we’ve seen quite a lot of our little pulse friends recently. And it wasn’t a fair test as, with an hour to go before the guests arrived, I realised I’d forgotten to buy the necessary Castelluccio lentils and garlic oil, so substituted green lentils and olive oil with crushed garlic in it. But the dish itself was really nice – I’d never cooked lentils with leek and thyme before. Fry leeks, add lentils, thyme, bay leaves and water. Serve when cooked (fish out bay leaves). Total cost only £1.50

Gnocchi Gratin was easy to make and quickly eaten, the only leftovers caused by the abundance of other food on the table. Heat mascarpone and milk in a pan and dissolve parmesan in it. Cook gnocchi, put into oven dish and cover with a mixture of breadcrumbs and more parmesan, put into oven and take out when golden. Total cost £12

Meatzza was tasty but overshadowed by everything else. The concept is simple enough – take beef mince and add herbs and spices (a bit like making lamb kofte mix), then pat down into an oven dish before covering with chopped tomatoes and mozzarella slices to form something that looks like a pizza. We’ll try it again on its own later. Total cost £15

Broccoli was meant to have been Nigella’s lemon and parmesan version, but we ran out of time so it was just broccoli. Take broccoli, chop into florets, chuck into water then guess how long it takes to cook.

The instant chocolate mousse was fab, and easy to make. Instead of egg, use condensed milk to thicken and bind the mixture of melted luxury chocolate and partially whipped cream. Leave to chill in the fridge then top with more partially whipped cream. The recipe called for orange liqueur but I left the booze out because of the children. Total cost £12

Nigelissima 1

Baked figs with honey went down a storm with the grown-ups, less so with the children (although the kids were pretty full by then). Cut and split figs without severing them completely, and drizzle olive oil over them before baking for 10 minutes. Prepare mixture of warm cream and honey, and chop unsalted pistachios in mini chopper. Pour honeyed cream over hot figs, sprinkle chopped nuts and serve. Total cost £12

Nigelissima 5


None of the recipes were difficult to follow, although I do wish I’d got the herbs sorted out in advance instead of running around the garden in the dark trying to pick thyme and oregano. I started prepping an hour and a half before the meal by opening the first bottle of Bardolino and finding Don Giovanni on the ipod. Chocolate mousse was next (as it had to be chilled before serving), then the Meatzza (which could be baked at the same time as the gnocchi but I didn’t want to be handling raw beef whilst cooking everything else). Then the lentils were put on, then the gnocchi prepared. Finally the tagliata and mock mash happened simultaneously, and the figs were got ready for throwing in the oven after the main course.


Would we use Nigella’s book again? Yes! Could we regularly afford to buy premium cherry tomatoes, sirloin steak, decent mince, pounds of parmesan, mascarpone? No! We could save Nigella’s book for special occasions or we could experiment. Can the chocolate mousse survive the ignominy of Sainsbury’s basics dark chocolate? Can the mock mash be made with ‘Italian hard cheese’ rather than real indicazione geografica typica parmesan? Because given our recent experience you could survive at least a year with just two cook books – Nigella’s and Jack’s – and change the ingredients to suit your budget. Have these two passionate ladies met? Can someone arrange it, and send me a preview copy of the resulting hybrid cookbook? Thank you.




This week I have spent a lot of time planning and preparing a Middle Eastern meal for two very lovely friends.  I am so looking forward to a relaxing Friday evening combining good company and Egypt nostalgia, and if the food looks presentable enough I will inevitably be Instagramming it.  I couldn’t resist posting a sneak preview yesterday of the basbousa, and several people have asked me for the recipe so here it is.  If you are observant you may notice that I didn’t use an 8 x 12 inch cake tin.  If you don’t have one, a 10 inch round one will do!


½ cup unsalted butter

¾ cup caster sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla essence

2 eggs

2 cups fine semolina

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

¾ cup yoghurt

blanched split almonds


2 cups sugar

1 ½ cups water

1 tablespoon lemon juice

  1. Cream butter, sugar and vanilla essence until light and fluffy.  Add eggs one at a time and beat well.
  2. Sift semolina, baking powder and soda twice.  Fold into butter mixture alternately with yoghurt.
  3. Spread batter into a greased 20 x 30 cm (8 x 12 inch) slab cake pan and place almonds on top in rows.
  4. Bake in a moderate oven – 180° C (350° F) for 30-35 minutes.
  5. While cake cooks, make syrup. Dissolve sugar in water over medium heat, add lemon juice and bring to the boil.  Boil rapidly for 10 minutes, then cool by standing pan in cold water.
  6. When cake is cooked, spoon cooled syrup over the hot cake.  Cool thoroughly and cut into diamond shapes or squares to serve.

The recipe comes from The Complete Middle East Cookbook by Tess Mallos.

Outdoor Cooking

Last Saturday I had this bright idea that we might make a fire in the garden with the children and cook something on it.  I suggested heating up milk for hot chocolate, but that was too simple for Paul…

building the fire

He taught the children how to build a fire.  It was great watching them have so much fun with daddy, and learn a really useful skill too.

lighting the fire

With close supervision, Owl lit the fire.

cooking on the fire 1

Then the cooking began.  Somehow, the idea of hot chocolate was lost in Paul’s more elaborate plan to make prawn curry for supper.  He chopped the onions and started frying them, while Monkey and Rabbit practised using a tin opener to open tins of tomatoes.  The children took turns to add the ingredients (I should probably get Paul to blog the recipe!) and stir them.

cooking on the fire 2

We also cooked some rice, and it was all ready pretty quickly.  The resulting meal was delicious, even if it did look a little more rustic than the version Paul had cooked the weekend before!


The children did get their hot chocolate in the end.  Daddy cooked it for them while we were indoors watching Strictly.  He also cooked stewed apple and custard out there.  He doesn’t do anything by halves!

We had a great time cooking outdoors, and we’ll certainly be doing it again.  Though I did decline the children’s request to cook the roast out there on Sunday 🙂

Country Kids from Coombe Mill Family Farm Holidays Cornwall

Meal Planning Monday 4th November 2013

Looking back at our plan for last week, I think we more or less managed to stick to it – though we didn’t get round to the baking (other than flapjacks) or toffee making. The batch cooking was quite a success, though I can’t say the meals tasted very much of meat as the pack of mince was spread so thinly.  That didn’t bother me, but it made me think we could just do the same thing with more lentils and no mince, so I might do that next time.

We had lunch at Granny’s house (Paul’s mum) today, which is our usual Monday routine.  For supper we had leftover sausage casserole and potatoes. This is the plan for the rest of the week.

Breakfasts – cereal, yoghurt, fruit and toast, and maybe porridge.

Lunches – lentil and vegetable soup (Tuesday and Wednesday), sandwiches (Thursday as we will be out) and eggs (Friday)


Tuesday – the last of the sausage casserole and potatoes.  (I deliberately cooked a lot on Sunday, and also extra frankfurters and beans as we had friends round, so that we would have enough for three days and I got it just about right.)

Wednesday – Quorn chicken pieces, rice and vegetables.

Thursday – pasta and pesto.

That’s as far as I need to plan this week as we will be at my mum’s on Friday.

Puddings – We still have a lot of cooking apples, so it’s likely to be stewed apple most days.  We didn’t manage to make the toffee for our bonfire night last night so we will try and fit that in tomorrow.

Snacks – fruit, biscuits and rice cakes.

There wasn’t too much to buy this week, so the shopping at Lidl was cheap – at least it would have been if I hadn’t decided to buy winter boots for myself and three of the children!  Taking those off the bill, the regular shopping came to around £50.  There will be one or two top-up shops (the first occurred this evening as we needed more treacle which Lidl didn’t have, and also sparklers, so Paul has been to Sainsbury’s for those) but I don’t think we’ll need to spend too much more.  I will try to keep up the meal planning because it is definitely making it easier to save money.

Meal Planning Monday

Old Doverhouse Chutney

You ask your husband for a simple post about how to make chutney, and this is what you get.

Autumn, and a middle-aged man’s thoughts turn to fruit preservation…

end result

Delia Smith published her famous 1970s cookery course in three books. The culinary neophyte is expected to master the basics in book one, including the exotic- “Bolognese Sauce” on page158. They advance to book two, navigating a chapter on cheese that tricks many a beginner into attempting quiche – or even soufflé – before they’ve earned their kitchen stripes. And then the complicated stuff, the black belt, the third dan, the Heston Blumenthalesque experimentation: book three. The early chapters start gently, with simple food like “crème brulee”, or the “Nine Herb Salad of Hintlesham”, but then, right at the end of the book, the last test for those who consider themselves worthy of the accolade “Fan of Delia” – the chutneys and preserves. I have been through the trial and come out the other side, so can reveal to you today the secret of good chutney:

Chop up a load of fruit and veg, plunge it into vinegar and sugar, and add some spices, salt and raisins. That’s it – it’s easier than a Bolognese sauce. If, like me, you find it hard to follow recipes without adding your own twist, try adding too much chilli, realising your mistake, and making a whole second batch of chutney that you can combine with the first one, to tone it down.

So here’s Delia’s recipe for 8 X 1 lb jars of Old Doverhouse Chutney, which can’t be copyrighted as Delia herself declared it had been given to her on a yellowing page taken from a cookbook belonging to someone’s great-grandmother:

1 ½ lb plums, preferably Victoria
2 lb cooking apples
8 oz green or red tomatoes
1 lb raisins
8 oz onions
1 ½ lb demarara sugar
ginger – 4 oz of preserved ginger, or guess the fresh quantity
chilli – ¼ oz, or guess
garlic – ¼ oz, or guess
1 ½ tablespoons salt
1 pint malt vinegar


We got the cooking apples from our garden, and the plums from my mum’s garden. The tomatoes came cheaply from the local corner shop, because they were going soft.



Take the biggest saucepan you’ve got and pour the whole pint of vinegar into it. Cut the plums in half and remove the stones, then cut the halves in halves, and chuck them into the vinegar. Now chop the tomatoes roughly and add them to the vinegar. Then stick the iplayer on and peel and chop the apples and onions, and whizz them in a food processor, before adding to the pan. (Before we had a food processor we just chopped the apples and onions finely).

Peel the garlic, chilli and ginger, and whizz them in the food processor.  How much you use depends on how hot you like your chutney – I used two whole chillies and five cloves of garlic, and had no idea how much fresh ginger corresponded to preserved ginger, so put a two inch piece in.  The result was too hot for me, but Hannah really liked it.  Why not start with a third of these amounts?


Add the last ingredients to the pan, together with the sugar and salt, and heat everything very gently. Be careful not to heat too quickly as the chutney-to-be can catch on the bottom of the plan and burn really easily.

Simmer until it all looks like chutney. I tend to leave the mixture to cool, then see whether it has that gloopy chutney look about it. If it does, heat up the mixture again before ladling it, still hot, into the jars and screwing the lids down. The cooling chutney creates enough of a vacuum to pull the lids down tight. Delia refers to discs of greaseproof paper, and covering the lids of the jars, but I’ve never had chutney go off when not using these extras.

Finally, as you sit down to the first meal that could do with a bit of homemade chutney on the side, reflect on how odd it is that chutney is a Sanskrit word, wholehearted adopted by the British to reflect the addition of chilli and garlic to a fruit preservation process that has been carried out on these shores for centuries. And then start to wonder about the history of apples in Britain…..

Meal Planning Monday 28th October 2013

I’ve been meaning to join in with Meal Planning Monday again for a while, and I’m just about going to manage before Monday is over.  I haven’t had to do any planning for today anyway, as we had lunch (Spaghetti with Quorn Bolognese) at Granny’s house, and then chicken soup for supper, made (by Daddy) from the leftovers of last night’s roast dinner.  So I have got off rather lightly.  This is the plan for the rest of the week.

Breakfasts will be mainly cereal, yoghurt, fruit and toast, but we will have porridge at least once, and probably eggs once as well.

Lunches will be soup, bread, cheese and olives.  The chicken soup will last a couple more days I think.  I am hoping to go foraging for more sweet chestnuts soon, and if we are successful I would like to make chestnut soup.  We will probably make pumpkin soup on Thursday too, as I expect we will be carving at least one!  That should be enough, but my backup plan is to make some tomato soup if all else fails.

Suppers – I am going to try this method of making a pack of mince stretch over three days (I’m not sure it will do six meals in our family, but if there’s any left I will freeze it.)  It’s unusual for us to have meat three days in a row, but after all it is only a small amount of mince.  Anyway, on Friday we will default to our more usual type of vegetarian meal.

Tuesday – cottage pie

Wednesday – chilli con carne with rice

Thursday – Spaghetti Bolognese

Friday – vegetable stew (with beans or lentils, depending how the mood takes me)

Saturday – we will be at the Matilda Mae Welly Walk in Reading, so I think we will end up eating out.

Sunday – this will be our bonfire night in our garden, and we will have sausage casserole with baked potatoes – we might even cook the potatoes on the bonfire if we are organised enough!

Puddings will be variations on a theme of stewed apple, with either yoghurt or custard; we will probably have rice pudding and/ or semolina too, and we have a rather ripe pineapple that needs eating up.  We might make treacle toffee, and possibly toffee apples for Sunday.

Snacks will be fruit, biscuits and flapjacks, and anything else the children feel like baking – we have more time for that this week as it is half term.

It’s a nice cheap week, as we already had the mince and sausages in the freezer (bought on special offer by Daddy, I assume – he does this from time to time, otherwise he finds himself eating only vegetarian food – he’s not fussy, but he likes a bit of meat now and again, whereas I could live without it!)  It’s much easier to make a plan like this, and save money, when we are not too busy (though I doubt we will stick to it completely.)  The real test will be trying to do the same thing next week, when the term-time activities start again.

Meal Planning Monday

Story Picnic

Story Picnic 1

Today we had a story picnic!  It all started a few weeks ago when one of the children suggested we had a book day.  We had a lot of fun collecting books and matching soft toys, making displays and reading together, and we have repeated the activity a few times since.  I think it is going to be a regular Friday activity from now on.  We have managed a few book-themed snacks from time to time, but today we decided it was time for a story picnic.

Yesterday afternoon we spent some time collecting suitable books.  We had lots to choose from so we will be doing the activity again, I am sure.  In the end we settled on a menu.

Peter Rabbit’s salad (lettuce, beans and radishes) and blackberries

Teddy Robinson’s Teddy Bear Crisps

Kipper’s picnic sandwiches (cheese and jam)

Egg sandwiches (the relevant story book was lost so we read a non-fiction book about Eggs and Chicks instead)

Harry’s dinosaur sandwiches (peanut butter and marmite)

Winnie the Pooh’s Honey sandwiches

Paddington’s Marmalade sandwiches

Lola’s moonsquirters (tomatoes) and pink milk

Floppy’s cake

Peppa Pig’s chocolate chip cookies

Grandpa Pig’s carrots

The Very Hungry Caterpillar’s very big picnic

Story Picnic 2

Rabbit drew a picture of some fruit and vegetables yesterday before she went to bed, and this morning all four children spent a long time making labels for all the items on the menu.  They were all lovely and I was very proud when Rabbit wrote “jam” without asking how to spell it.  Even Tiddler drew a picture of Floppy’s cake.  He also helped me to make the egg sandwiches (for some reason I don’t seem to have a picture of them close up) and was very pleased with himself (“I very good at choppin’ eggs, mummy!”)

Story Picnic 3

Tiddler helped me to cut out the dinosaur sandwiches as well.  We have had a lot of use out of our dinosaur cutters over the years and they are very popular.

Story Picnic 4

Rabbit also helped with making the sandwiches, washing the tomatoes and sticking the labels in.

Story Picnic 5

The excitement was building as the children caught a glimpse of the chocolate cake!  They helped to lay out the picnic blanket and then carried out the books, soft toys and plates, cups and napkins.  Rabbit had carefully chosen four book-themed cups (two Maisy, one Elmer and one Peppa Pig!) and we used some leftover Gruffalo napkins from Tiddler and Owl’s party.

Story Picnic 6

Next we carried all the food out and started to arrange the picnic.  We decided to leave Grandpa Pig’s carrots whole with their tops on as they looked so pretty.  I took the vegetable peelers out too, as the children enjoy peeling them and eating them whole, which I have recently discovered is a great activity as well as a snack.  Today though they couldn’t compete with all the other tempting treats on offer, so we saved them till supper time in the end.

Story Picnic 7

The very last thing we did before taking the photographs was to take the ice cream out of the freezer.  And of course we couldn’t leave it to melt, so we had to go and get three more, and that is how the children started their picnic.  They did eat a lot of the rest of it too!

Story Picnic 8

We finished up by reading some of the stories together.  They all listened to The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Kipper’s Picnic, and then I read an Usborne Book about Eggs and Chicks mainly to Owl and Tiddler, while Monkey and Rabbit climbed in the apple tree above our heads.  Lastly I read Winnie the Pooh and the Ten Busy Bees to Tiddler while the others played in the garden, and then we had to go inside because it was too hot (for a change!)  We didn’t read all the stories but I don’t think that matters.  I’m sure we’ll be having a story picnic again soon.

Story Picnic 9

This is our entry for the Tots 100 May Challenge: Perfect Picnic with Center Parcs

Chocolate Easter Nests

As I have mentioned in previous posts, we have made two batches of chocolate Easter nests.  As the second batch was much more successful, mainly because it was done in less of a hurry and with appropriate quantities of ingredients, I thought I would blog it properly here.  It is already Easter Sunday, so I don’t suppose there are a lot of people frantically searching for a blog post on how to make them, but you never know… Also, if I put it here I will be able to refer to it next year and get it right first time.  Possibly.

You will need:

  • 150g milk chocolate
  • 150g plain chocolate
  • 30g butter
  • 120g shredded wheat
  • mini chocolate eggs
  • small paper cases

This recipe is enough for about 22 small nests.

Break the chocolate into squares, and put them in a bowl.  Add the butter, and place the bowl over a pan of water that has just come to the boil.  Stir until everything has melted.  Break up the shredded wheat into strands and add to the chocolate mixture.  Stir until the shredded wheat is completely coated with chocolate.  Place a teaspoonful of the mixture into each paper case and press it down slightly in the middle.  Add a mini chocolate egg, and put the nests in the fridge for at least half an hour.