Friday, 30 December 2011

December 30th - What it's all about

Dear Nigel,

I thought this Christmas was going to be a hard one for us - the first year on our own, but now i feel myself going with the flow. The food is fairly organised, coming out of the freezer far quicker than it went in. It's amazing what vast quantity a family of eight can consume when put to the test. And Christmas is always a test of fortitude. What teenager, however hung-over is going to look his mum in the face and refuse to eat her lovingly crafted game casserole? Sometimes this means a stay in the microwave and the staggering of sittings as one after the other fits the food around their dynamic social lives. Sometimes this is plain annoying, usually i remember how i was as a teenager and make allowances. Maybe it is because of this that i am paid the highest accolade: "This has been the best Christmas ever". Odd, perhaps, but i know that the sentiment behind it has everything to do with this Christmas being laid-back and flexible; with people able to do the things they want to and have the Christmas they choose. Sometimes, as in the past, we place high demands and expectations on people at Christmas and require them to be and do the things that fit in with our view of what should be. Yet Christmas is for everyone and the art of giving is in the thinking of what the receiver would really appreciate. As in presents, as in life.

Today we had some very fine Stilton and Asparagus sausages from Chatsworth farm shop with Chips and mushrooms and a piece of rump steak. I'm quite addicted to Heston's oak smoked salt from Waitrose and the kids take note. My second son will always say "i'll have whatever your having" because he knows he won't be disappointed. My ex- used to have food envy too: whatever he chose from a menu when we went out, somehow he always thought mine was better. I always found this a strange concept to get my head around. After all, surely you would always choose whatever sounded nicest to you on the menu, and what you fancied at the time?

I see you plumped for bangers and mash too; and add all those jars of pickles found in your stocking. We have some particularly nice ones this year. I love caramelized onion and a wonderful fig relish by Tracklements which was just made for anything involving goats' cheese.

I think 2012 is going to be a better year for us - i certainly hope so -. Maybe it is time to move on, literally and mentally, and create a new life for ourselves. I hope you're having a wonderful Christmas and look forward to a bright and beautiful New Year,


Friday, 23 December 2011

December 23rd - venison and chips and chocolate

Dear Nigel,

Christmas is in full swing here and the food is flying out of the cupboards far faster than i put it in. Today we have venison casserole lovingly made earlier and frozen. But by the time it comes for dinner we are all worn out and comatose and i can't be bothered to peel lots of potatoes to make mash. So we have chips instead. Sacrilege i hear you say. But we don't care, we enjoy it anyway. Followed by a sticky toffee pudding and ice cream.

Yesterday i was making millionaire's shortbread, as requested by Tom. It's not the quickest thing to make or the cheapest, and, when it came to melting the chocolate to go on top i got complaints from my daughter that i was wasting good chocolate - two bars of lindt excellence - . I was rather taken aback. What does this say about my cooking in her eyes? or is chocolate only for eating? Should i resort to cooking chocolate or, heaven forbid, cake covering? Is the amount of time spent not worthy? Are the people likely to eat it not worthy either? It's an interesting question: what is worth enough and what is too high a price to pay (in any kind of sense). My mother has the same problem when it comes to putting good wine in a casserole, yet she will willingly pay a king's ransom for the meat. Others will lavish an inordinate amount of time on a poor quality piece of meat, or go for quantity over quality.

You've been icing your Christmas cake. The children and i did ours yesterday. I went for the ready-to-roll white marzipan and icing and was pleased with the unusually professional finish. Then i let the children loose with the decorations and they made sure it looked like a good old-fashioned homemade affair, like every year. I remember the American frosting my mum used to ice our cake with when i was a child. The idea was that you didn't have to use marzipan which we all detested. And this thick glossy coating, like whipped cream, did the trick. But as time went by it became harder and harder until you fairly needed a dentist drill to crack into the cake. It's not one of those family traditions i've been tempted to replicate.

Happy Christmas,


Tuesday, 20 December 2011

December 20th - Return of the Prodigal

Dear Nigel,

Christmas has started in our house. It flickered into life as my red haired Hannah jumped off the train in Buxton with a broken suitcase and a smile as big as a Cheshire cat. We almost didn't make it in time on the grounds that i couldn't get into the landrover as the severe weather had frozen up all the locks. So she was back home, complaining, arguing and fighting her corner immediately - our old Hannah back unchanged by six months au pairing in Spain. And then came Chris the following day. Brought up from the midlands by my sister and her brood. Home. Hugged. Safe. He flew in from Cyprus on friday, six months, much-missed. The prodigal returns; so naturally i have killed the fatted calf and we are tucking into the Christmas fodder uncharacteristically early, i suppose. Just when is Christmas supposed to start? Christmas day? Christmas Eve? I suspect a fairly empty house at New Year as they will all have parties of their own to go to, so why not eat, drink and be merry now? Office parties are always early, as are school Christmas dinners, parties and friends get-togethers.

I've been slow-cooking venison casserole and a game casserole to freeze. The colour is so deep and chocolatey and a wonderful richness that just feels so right at this time of year. I get some chipolatas for the little ones in case they turn their noses up at it. My daughter brings us packets of hams and salamis from Spain and two huge long salamis, gifts from her Spanish family. It reminds me of my German exchange back in  the 70's and carrying foil-wrapped Kabanos back on the train from Germany, through Belgium, the ferry and home to my unsuspecting parents.I'm sure it's probably illegal these days but we will eat the evidence first.

You've been enjoying some faggots. I shall say nothing. You lament the fact that your favourite brand has disappeared, saying "there is much comfort in familiar tastes". I know just what you mean. It is that particular something that takes you back instantly to a particular day, or time in your life, and something similar just won't do it. Our senses aren't fooled by new improved, low fat, or whatever. I've just purchased a tin of grapefruit for Christmas morning - just for me, i don't expect anyone else to eat it - because i need it to take me back to a place and a time that can't be replicated by a fresh, ripe, succulent grapefruit. My sister does it too, i discover. Funny that.


Thursday, 15 December 2011

December 15th - Words with Mary Berry, and playing with food

Dear Nigel,

I can see i'm going to have to have words with that Mary Berry. I made her wonderful Apple desert cake, which is in her Christmas book - just like last year. And, just like last year, i found the whole thing superglued to the loose-bottomed tin after cooking, and needing a black and decker to remove it from its metal base. I make sure i put a note to add baking parchment next year as i chisel away with a palate knife. I've also added pecan nuts and cinnamon instead of the almonds (as i'm not a fan), but all in all it's a pretty fab desert.

There's been a lot of playing with food in this house today. I should say it started with the daily shouting match - me at my four year old who takes twenty minutes to eat four bites out of a piece of toast and raspberry jam. Other people's children seem to eat; I clock watch and get exasperated, i cajole, i get angry, i throw it in the bin .Then Sophie made two dozen fairy cakes this afternoon. Only, by the time it came to getting the mixture in the cake cases we were down to fourteen. Where had the missing cake mixture gone i wonder? Little suprise that this evening's spag bol was barely touched.

Then it was my turn this evening. A quick recipe for Toffee sauce - also from the sainted Mary - to go on the Sticky Toffee puddings in the freezer. Last year i made lots of jars of this sauce (also in the Christmas book) to give to friends and family. I put labels on them, like the Supermarket, saying,"HIGH in Fat, HIGH in Sugar, HIGH in Calories, NO nutritional content whatsoever". The kids put it on ice cream and pancakes and my teenagers ate it straight out of the jar with a spoon.

Anyway, i got completely absorbed watching the golden syrup trickle off the spoon in the glow of the light from a candle. Like amber or molten glass the colours just moved and flowed - rather like the girl dancing at the start of the Bond film - and then tapering to a jumble of spidery writing in the pan. There is wonder to be had in the seemingly everyday things we never stop to consider. So this was my play moment. Back to the cooking days as a child when the simple act of weighing or mixing was an act of pure magic as the liquid disappeared into the flour or the pastry became a ball.

You're busy making lists for the festive season, and trying to save a few pennies by recycling food in another incarnation the following day. I like your method for cooked Ham, poached in Apple juice with onion, carrot,celery and star anise. I think i might try that recipe for the large Ham i bought the other day in Town. I think it might be time to start making my list, too. I tend to get a bit over-ambitious and inevitably run out of time and get stressed. Less is more, I've decided, and this year it's definately going to be less. I don't want to be running around like a headless chicken the day before Christmas.

So here's to our Christmas lists. May your Christmas be stress-free,


Tuesday, 13 December 2011

December 13th - pineapple progress and yet more soup

Dear Nigel,

Sophie came home today saying she loved pineapple, so off we went to the supermarket to buy one. It's only interesting because Sophie hates pineapple, wouldn't dream of letting a chunk rub shoulders with her grapes and strawberries in a fruit salad. So, the change of heart? - school dinners. I am a recent convert. I had previously thought that i would have better chance of getting something healthy into the mouth of a right little fusspot if i chose it and packed it myself. But i was wrong. The change to school dinners has had an effect like no other to get her to try new things and increase the variety of things she will eat. Why is it that i have tried giving her the same food as us, pretending to ignore what actually gets consumed, have her friends to tea, visit other people's houses, have grandma cajole and pander to her every whim; and yet it is the school dinner lady with her fast-moving queue, the noise and the rush to get out in the playground, who has had the greatest success?

I meditate on vegetable peelings as i make gallons of sweet potato, butternut squash and smoked chilli soup for the freezer. It is calming and contemplative. My grudge-bearing ex-husband has asked my son Chris, flying in from Cyprus for two weeks only, to spend Christmas with them. He does this two weeks before Christmas, knowing he will be stirring up trouble. Luckily, my son declines, but will visit later. I hadn't realised until this year what a highly emotive time of year this is. The importance of everything being just right, of everyone doing what you think they should, of the hidden dangers in the seemingly ordinary - the right amount spent on a particular person's present, the idea of fairness or 'equalness', the favours bought or paid for, the downright bribery if necessary so that someone won't be offended. It's a minefield. And the more people there are involved the greater the likelihood of something detonating somewhere. Add to this the "modern" family with step-parents, half-siblings, ex-stepchildren and a whole battalion of competing grandparents, and world war three is predicted to start in your own living room sometime within the next three weeks.

You appear to have had enough of pandering to others needs and, as you're not very hungry yourself "they get cheese on toast". Quite right too. There's too much expectation made of the cook these days; and the more you do the more they seem to expect. There is no end to this desire for better, more, different,improvement, and all without a single word being said. I would give them cheese on toast tomorrow as well and see how long before they crack.

Yours, cheesed off,


Sunday, 11 December 2011

December 11th - All the best cooks...

Dear Nigel,

I am going to make a supposition which may or may not be true as far as your concerned. But i think that all the best cooks like to eat out and let someone else do the cooking. Sometimes it's because you are able to enjoy the company more without the pressure to perform, to compare cooking styles and ingredients, pinch ideas (and why not?), but mainly so that you can let your hair down and be looked after by someone else for a change.

We had a day like that today. My Mum was here, three of my sons, and myself. I packed them all into the Landrover (complaining, of course, as they prefer something more comfortable), and took them all off to "The Devonshire Arms" at Beeley. This is a wonderful old Peak District pub with loads of charm and character and a  menu to match. I had Partridge with creamy potato and truffle sauce. The poor bird was tiny (as they are) but someone had seen fit to shoot it three times just to make sure it was dead. My teenage sons are learning to have a palate and make choices for themselves. It is lovely to watch them consider the options and move away from that childish state of only wanting a certain brand of junk food or food as a kind of statement of who they are - i only eat pizza etc. Sometimes, it seems as if they are never going to reach that state and that your giving in to their demands has brought up a child who will live solely on junk food or unhealthy or bland foods into old age. So it is nice to see them connecting their brains to their taste buds.

For once, it means they are confined to a space of about 4' x 3' and are thus removed from anything electrical and forced to communicate with you. This they find actually quite enjoyable, as is the action of moving fork to mouth. It is possible to do this at home - and sometimes it even works - but when you are out for dinner there is no being late to the table ( because you're halfway through a game), no exiting early (as you're the only driver), and the table manners you continuously moan about at home suddenly become effortless. Smaller children can be apt to play-up perhaps when out, but older teenagers seem to turn into the sort of people you want them to be. So, for that reason alone, i consider eating out with your family to be worth every penny.

You are feeling the change in the weather and make a three course meal to stuff you full to bursting. I find the  cold snap leaves room for the inevitable sticky toffee pudding, and, like the Readybrek advert, we leave with a warm glow surrounding us. Out to the delights of shopping in Bakewell, and trying to stuff three very reluctant teenage boys into the sort of boots that will keep the snow out. It is a trying time, but with my mum as ally we come away successful, and only one is still moaning all the way back to the car.

Eat today, for tomorrow we diet,


Friday, 9 December 2011

December 9th - Thermals and fish and chips

Dear Nigel,

The first snows of winter have come and the temperature has plummeted. My mum arrives from a much milder Northumberland and i put the heating on in her honour. I bundle her out of the railway station and into the Landrover and skate down the road trying to avoid the stationary cars. The other cars see us coming and reverse in unison - i thought this short cut was such a good idea. It's times like these i think of winter tyres and snow chains as an answer to my prayer. This year the council have sent their leaflet out early saying what they are doing, and narrowly avoiding to mention what they are not doing - like wasting our money on salt to grit the roads apparently.

So we get home and i remember that we ate the Carribean stew i thought we'd have, yesterday, and now, as they say 'the cupboard was bare.' I have a cold and i don't feel particularly hospitable so i suggest we have fish and chips because it feels just right in this bitter weather: inside thermals to add to the outside thermals which have been dug out from their summer hiding place. Sexy they are not, but who cares from under this parcel of at least four wool layers.

 Your answer is to cook a curry to 'bring us out in a sweat'. There is something totally defeating to the British idea of dieting about this kind of weather. Your body just craves and craves CARBOHYDRATES in any shape or form, whether bread, followed by toasted muffins, Barmbrack, chocolate, chips - who invented this ridiculous diet? Who sits in your head declaring that this is what you really want to eat, and now? If there is something inside us that instinctively knows, for instance, that there is something in a piece of coal which makes us compelled to lick it when pregnant, then surely there must be good nutritional reason why only chips and chocolate will do.Your curry sounds nice, with fennel and cream - such a lovely vegetable fennel and so under-used.

Tomorrow, snow permitting,we will go and hunt out a Turkey and bring it home and freeze it. I don't want the last minute panic of last year - will the Turkey make it through?or what will we eat on Christmas Day - tinned Ham? I am not aware that a fresh Turkey is any more superior to a frozen one, particularly if you have done the freezing yourself. Are you?

Yours from somewhere no less warmer than the arctic circle,


Tuesday, 6 December 2011

December 6th - The Best recipe Books

Dear Nigel,

Where do your best recipes come from? Do you just conjure them up daily from the unfathomable depths of your culinary mind, or do you, like the rest of us, dip in and out of various recipe books for recipes and inspiration?

I have a shelf unit in my kitchen which houses only cookery books. There are plenty of others floating around the house but these ones are the ones in current use. Some are my latest acquisitions, some old favourites, my very first copy of Good Housekeeping which i bought when still at school, my own recipe book of old family recipes. Being the anally retentive sort of person i probably am i have also alphabetically arranged the above books according to author. Thus your books, of which i have six recipe books (and two others) are between Delia's and The River cafe.

The best recipe books, i find, are the ones that you actually use. The recipes that you come back to time and time again, the cooks that you trust to deliver and not confuse or baffle you. Like many people i choose to mark my books. They are books for using and not just salivating over. I write crosses and ticks depending whether it's worth making again, i make comments about whether it was lovely, OK, too expensive, too fiddly or time consuming to bother with. I tweak ingredients or change the quantities e.g. for more sauce or topping etc. Sometimes i make notes to myself about the credibility of the recipe - "who does she think she's kidding", "no one in their right mind would spend this long preparing these vegetables", "has anyone actually tasted this? - it's foul". Some times i like to write notes of a special occasion i cooked something for, a memory saved in time, to be glanced at and remembered at odd times.

I like to think that one day, when i'm long gone, my children or future grandchildren will be able to look at one of these books and find a little bit of me trapped therein. It's easy to leave photos or diaries, and they too have their place, but i like to think that in these books are a lifetime of meals prepared and served and eaten, of friends and family nourished and entertained (in every sense), and a kind of documentary of my life. There are lavish recipes of good times, celebration and plenty; and frugal cookbooks for the lean times, for the post-Christmas recovery, the pre-Summer drive to lose weight, balanced by the books of puddings and pies and comfort food for those cashmere days in Autumn. There are notices on timing, which tin to use - or not - how to rescue something that's in danger of escaping or substitutions for things that i know my family will like better - a different fruit, or nut, or topping. And interspersed with these are the inevitable artwork of splattered recipes, dustings of cocoa or flour, of spitting fat or greasy fingerprints. Some people like to work from a perfectly clean book and will replace worn-out, dog-eared and stained books with new. But for me  it is comforting to know I've been this way before.

You make your Christmas cake and remind me to feed my cake with brandy. This is one recipe that i won't be making of yours. I have my Granny's family recipe and here is one instance when it's about something more than just the recipe: this is about a family heritage which i want to pass on to my children and to theirs.

 So sorry Nigel, I'm sure it tastes absolutely wonderful, but we all have our little family customs.


Sunday, 4 December 2011

December 4th - Christmas Trees and chocolate santas

Dear Nigel,

Today we went to get the Christmas tree as always from a little farm in Higher Disley which always seems to have the brightest, bushiest and freshest. I set off in the Landie - Archie - with the little ones singing along to a bad christmas song tape (yes, someone still makes them, tapes i mean). I was feeling quite upbeat and looking forward to choosing a tree together. And then it hit me. Sometimes the smallest thing can push you over the edge. Perhaps it was the fug and warmth and bad carols, but i found myself sobbing silently, trying not to let the children see my tears. This is our first Christmas on our own. Choosing the tree had been one of OUR special things as a couple. Bad time of year this - so much expectation, so much forced and real jollity, so much pressure to have a nice time, get everything right, be everything to everyone...Sometimes it's all just too much.

Molly said to me," Are you going to carry the tree, mummy?" Yes, who else is there? The plight of single mothers everywhere is that you just have to get on and do the things you thought you couldn't possibly manage.
"My big mummy," she says - and i am, to her four year old frame. I'm contemplating how i'm going to get this huge tree we've just bought onto the Landrover roof rack - luckily there's a little ladder on the back. I'm 5'2" and fairly slight and this tree is considerably bigger than i am. But i manage, and i give myself another gold star for grin-and-bear-it; and another first is passed and i'm still here.

I bought some little chocolate Santas to go on the tree. Small children love them out of all proportion. I don't suppose they pass the taste test or the style test, but i would never be allowed to get away without them - not for a good few years at least. I remember when i was small we had chocolate candles and angels with gold radiating fronds; ridiculously ornate affairs for christmas tree chocolates (and maybe that's why you never see them anymore), but they were magical things that remain where other things have faded.I'll keep the santas under wraps until Christmas is fully upon us or the mice will surely visit and deplete their number.

There's no entry for you today so maybe you ate light. We have pudding - sticky toffee pudding with custard - but no dinner planned as such. Expect i'll just see what i can do with whatever i can find in the fridge. Increased the timer on the heating as it gets darker and colder earlier, and there's nothing more miserable than waiting for the heating to come on.

Yours from the depths of a winter's day,


Saturday, 3 December 2011

December 3rd - Christmas Angels and Mince pies

Dear Nigel,

The festive season is at last upon us. I'd almost decided to give up on the day as the children were behaving like horrible spoiled brats, fighting and generally trashing the house. If it hadn't been for the fact that i'd already paid for the tickets (and the inclusion of supper meant that there was one meal i didn't need to think about), I think i would have been tempted to stay home, put forward the clocks and move towards an early tea and bedtime. So i set off with grim determination towards the surrounding darkness of the vast parkland surrounding Chatsworth.

 But here the magic started. With every car heading the other way, every light bulb taking us towards the stables, the little pink and spotted bodies of two-day old piglets suckling. And then on to the dressing room for the donning of costumes, of angels with wings of real goose feathers, sitting on hay bales tucking into a fine Cornish pasty from the renowned farm shop. And as the story unfolded, replete with real donkey and sheep, my heart melted just a little and the disaster of a day was gone to replaced by something immortalized and eternal.

I was tucking into my third  Chatsworth mince pie in the interest of research you understand. I made my own mince pies weeks ago with mincemeat left to mature from last year. I was pleased with the taste although they do seem to weep a sticky goo - which i quite like - but doesn't give the kind of shop-bought finish the Chatsworth ones enjoyed. I think on balance it's a question of soul - the neatly-formed, precise, sugar-dusted pies seem to lack that touch of love, the uneven rolling of pastry, the lopsided star pressed on by finger dents. A bit like my angel with her lopsided halo and the sheep trying to tuck into whatever was surrounding baby Jesus. The smallest king refused to hand over the gold and mary appeared to have been drinking given her red nose and cheeks - or it could just have been over-zelous use of face paints.

You cook some Spanish-style re-fried rice with left-overs from the fridge and echo my thoughts, saying, it is "utterly delicious (but) looks a bit of a mess". Food is like that, when left to its own devices, not fussed or garnished. My mince pies would never grace a farm shop or WI tea, but i would like to  bet there won't be a   single one left at the end of the festive season.

From one blinkered omnivore to another,


Friday, 2 December 2011

December 2nd - A right veggie knees-up

Dear Nigel,

I received an invitation today to a party at the Peak Yoga Centre where i go once a week for bodily torture and soul restoration. And herein lies the dilemma.(It must be one that you face regularly but for me it is an irregular event at most.) That is the idea of expectation and of what the food says about you to other people. In my case, the invitation simply says, any food donations welcome. But is that really the case? A few minutes chat in the cafe reveals that there is an accepted view of vegetarianism - so there goes my tray of sausage rolls out of the window. The view about alcohol consumption is split, but as the ticket mentions mulled wine and mince pies, i guess i'm safe with a sherry trifle. On the other hand, i notice i'm the only one downing a latte while they all sip earl grey, so perhaps a coffee and Baileys cheesecake would get me double black marks.I decide to plump for the savory option as there are a lot of very lean and lithe people out there and a sweet indulgence might be met with derision. And then where do you go? India? which part? and how authentic could you make it when they've all been away practicing on hallowed ground and the nearest you've been is the Tandoori at the end of the road?

I leaf through my vegetarian cookery books, many of them worthy, wholesome and completely indigestible tomes from the 70's. Eventually i remember a wonderful tart with Aubergine, red pepper and tomato by Isidora Popovic, who started cooking eleven years ago with a Prince's Trust grant and a stall in Portobello Market. A woman after my own heart, and in whose footsteps i would like to tread. It is the sort of tart from which the taste explodes and, i hope, will prevent judgement from a fairly formidable group of people.

You make your Christmas Pudding today. I made mine a few weeks ago but i wish i'd seen your recipe first as the idea of dried figs, apricots and orange zest appeals greatly. I will add it to my Christmas note book with a note to try it next year. I've been following Delia's Christmas pudding recipe since her days as Queen of TV food watching. Some of her other recipes I've done-to-death and rather moved on from. I tend to stay clear of many chocolate recipes for the same reason. These days i make a lot of ordinary home-cooked fare because a lovely casserole and an apple and cinnamon crumble is what i want to eat; though the casserole may be game and the crumble with ginger ice cream.

Hope you made a wish. My children all had a stir and the little ones made wishes for their absent brothers and sister; and i wished them all back home safely.


Thursday, 1 December 2011

December 1st - Rock'n'roll Turkeys

Dear Nigel,

It's the first day of Advent and i thought i'd get ahead by ordering the Turkey. We usually have a Norfolk Black or a Bronze from Karen at Heathylea farm in Hollinsclough. But, disaster of disasters, Karen's decided that,  after the snow of last year, not to bother with Turkeys this Christmas. Living in a small hill farm on a tiny little back road was a nightmare for them last year when the snow hit just a few days before Christmas.It's a shame as her Turkeys were beautiful amazing beasts. We went to see them when they were growing and they were having quite a rowdy party: Radio 2 was blaring out and they were tucking in to Christmas pudding along with their regular food. I swear one staggered past with a glass of wine and a paper hat on its head. Karen did offer to let me have one of their few birds, but as these are really pets i couldn't find it in me to make them hand over Charlie or Alfred in a plastic bag. Think i'll go back to the Ice Cream farm who were taking orders from a local farm at Wildboarclough.

Every family has its pre-Christmas customs. Mine usually involves hunting for all the boxes of decorations in the loft- early, as several involve the children's advent calendars. We have a lovely one with a christmas tree musical box and tiny decorations in drawers to hang on it. It belonged to my older daughter, now in her 20's, and is still intact and just as precious. This year i bought a new wreath to replace my cobweb-encrusted dried mushroom ring above the stove. This one is a ring of Brussel sprouts. And i cracked open the tiny gold perfume  bottle of Chambord black Raspberry liquor.The taste is wonderfully warm and inviting. I used some in my Summer Pudding as an alternative to cassis; though i have to admit that this was one case when i chose the product entirely for its beautiful packaging.To my shame.

I see you've caught the Christmas bug, too - not the tacky, commercial affair we're all pressurized into wanting, but the magic and candlelight and distant waft of carols in the frosty night air. Meals are light, at this end too, as we prepare for a season of over-indulgence and stuffing. You offer a quick pasta dish with artichokes and flat-leaved parsley and i think we may go for something similar ourselves. Children seem universally to love pasta however fussy they are at eating and it always figures heavily on our menu.

With yuletide greetings and the sound of sleigh bells from over the hills,


Wednesday, 30 November 2011

November 30th - wobbly cheesecakes and single mothers

Dear Nigel,

Had a wonderful baked New York cheesecake at my Mum's the other week; so today i thought i would make a couple to put by for Christmas, to have with sour cream and mixed berries. It's interesting that i should have tasted this wonderful cheesecake at my mum's as, i have to say, it's the cheesecakes i had at home as a child that put me off going near one for years. Even when they had a bit of a revival a few years back i couldn't be tempted.

The cheesecake, as i remember it, was a 70's invention which came out of a packet from Greens and to which a lemon jelly was somehow added, which gave it it's characteristic wobble. On top my Mum would add a revolving layer of tinned mandarin and a little jug of evaporated mild was passed reverently round.

Setting to, to replicate this New York vanilla  cheesecake, the cordon bleur cook in me was struggling to get out again - mainly out of the kitchen - as i remembered, a little too late, that my 9" springform tin is a little battered and therefore not as snug-fitting as it should be. I watched the liquid filling start to pour out from underneath and went for the shove-it-on-a-baking sheet and into the oven approach in the hope that it would start to set before the entire contents dripped out of the tin. This method appeared to work. No doubt the same thing will happen next time as i will, in all probability, forget to replace the offending tin. I don't suppose you suffer battered tins gladly, Nigel. But then, how often do you find when you want to use them that someone's gone off with them and stuffed them with blue Playdough?

I was considering the plight of single mothers today. It occurred to me that i am simply following in something of a family tradition. My great-grandma was a young mum during the first world was when her husband died, leaving her four small children to bring up on her own. My granny was a young mum during the second world war and was left with two small children and a fish shop to run whilst grandpa went to war. My own mum fairly brought us three up on her own during the 60's and 70's as my dad was away working in the far east most of the time. So, the modern epidemic of divorce and separation (and i've achieved both) is nothing to spill the milk over.

You make a simple miso broth with prawn dumplings, i make a more substantial soup with spiced beef and red pepper. It relies heavily on smoked paprika and sour cream and i love it: just what i need to keep this foul dark weather at bay. Took the kids to the ice cream farm to see the animals and taste- test the tubs we want to buy in for Christmas. There was a time when i made all my own ice cream, but several episodes with a bouncing ice cream maker, and the fact that here in the Peak District we are at least blessed with five really good ice cream farms in a very small radius (bet you can't say that in your neck of the woods )  has made me change tack.

Yours from the bottom of a good bottle of wine,


Monday, 28 November 2011

November 28th - Not all Sticky Toffee Puddings are made equal

Dear Nigel,

Thought i'd make headway with the first of the Sticky Toffee Puddings today. They freeze well and are perennially popular, especially in wintertime. Last Christmas was a white Christmas - here in the Peak District anyway -. lovely for the kids sledging and avoiding schoolwork, less popular for all  those of us with heavy presents to deliver to relatives upcountry.( I think i still have one tin of quality street  wrapped  last year sitting in a cupboard somewhere.)

I have tried many a Sticky Toffee Pudding in pubs and restaurants and from farm shops and am becoming a bit of a connoisseur on said item. Sometimes there is a definite meanness with the toffee sauce - this is one recipe where more is definitely more and a veritable lake is far preferable to a dried-up spring. The choice of cream, ice cream or custard i usually leave open to the scoffer as everyone has their own favourite and this is not the time of year to be dictating such things. I like to use Lucy Young's recipes as i find them so practical, and this is a particularly good one. (Lucy Young is Mary Berry's side -kick, though i'm not sure she'd like to be described as such).

You find a particularly nice Celeriac in a farmers market; one of my favourite winter vegetables. I like mine mashed with potato but  you come up with a remoulade with shredded raw celeriac and walnuts in a dressing, using the rest of the walnuts in a coffee cake. Yum! I don't think i've ever tried celeriac raw before so i'm tempted to give it a go. Our farmers market is on Thursday and the nobbly vegetable man is always there.

Yours from comfort-food heaven,


Sunday, 27 November 2011

November 27th - Soup to soothe the soul

Dear Nigel,

The kids put their requests in for Christmas - not the over-ambitious present lists, but the list of their favourite foods. One wants Millionaire's shortbread, another Sticky Toffee sauce (with or without the accompanying pudding), and there is a sizeable minority who just adore my Smoked Salmon soup. I'd love to include the recipe here but, as i have no idea where i got it from and thus who to attribute it too, i don't want to get into trouble. Suffice to say it includes a large dollop of Boursin and much smoked salmon. It's a good one to make on a grey windy day when i'm feeling just a little bit low and i need some comforting - a nice man like yourself would do nicely, but in its absence a bowl of this special soup makes a fair replacement. The rest will have to add to my increasing stock in the freezer.

I read your entry for today and i see you're having the same kind of day as i am. You say, "sometimes you just need comfort food of the highest order". You make a "cheesy pie to warm the soul", - a molten mix of mashed potato, caramelized onions and stilton - a good choice to provide a concrete lining and ground you once again. Does this whole idea of grounding rely on a certain heaviness? I can't imagine being grounded by a light mixed salad or a sorbet.

The days are getting shorter and shorter and the thought of a nest of blankets and a DVD suddenly seems a very good idea. The dog seems resigned to her fate and the cats have already monopolized the best seats in the house. A more assertive person would probably turf them off but they look so comfortable and so relaxed. Who am i to deprive them of their pleasure? So i'll probably squeeze in beside them hoping they'll give me enough room to breathe in.

Pass the chocolates, Nigel,


Friday, 25 November 2011

November 25th - Bananas to Biscuits

Dear Nigel,

When i look around my kitchen i see two obvious areas of friction which probably don't exist in your quiet. contemplative space. The first stands at the far end of the kitchen on the welsh dresser. It is a rather scuffed and battered Brigewater biscuit barrel, scarred by many episodes of contact with the floor by over- zealous children.

I have noticed an interesting phenomenon. Rather like the reverse of the magician pulling rabbits out of a hat, i carefully unwrap a packet of biscuits and empty them into the tin. However, the next time i come to open the tin  i invariably find that all the biscuits have disappeared. This magical occurrence happens whether i am in the house or not, even in the same room or not. I never witness the perpetrator in action and it seems to make no difference whether they are handmade gingersnaps, expensive little french affairs or value packets of bourbon biscuits (indeed i still haven't decided whether there is any loss in quality between an upper class boubon and its value equivalent). To this end, i am considering writing to Emma Bridgewater with a request for a modification to be made to the said biscuit barrel. I would like the addition of a sound- activation so that on removal of the lid a voice bellows "STAND AWAY FROM THE TIN". This might give me time to save the day, or at least the biscuits.

The other point of friction most noticeable is the second fruit bowl. This is a large bowl on top of the microwave which houses only one product - Bananas. The reason for this is that when left with their friends they seem to ripen with amazing speed - great if you like them that way, and foodies always seem to be trying to convince us that this is the true way to eat a Banana. But, in our house we like them spotless and yellow. If even the slightest brownness is detected it will be cut out or the whole banana disregarded. You try reasoning with a four year old over this issue. I have partly managed to deal with too infrequent shopping trips by the introduction of a particularly naff-looking item from Lakeland which seems to work (much to my aesthetic side's disgust). This is a kind of mini bright yellow duvet for Bananas which cossets them in the fridge and seems to prevent the onset of brown bits. Once you get over the idea that it reminds you of cheap nylon puffa jackets and concentrate on the time saved, it becomes a modern miracle.

I see you're dining on "a slithery, cold noodle salad" today, and i'm in no mood to cook as i'm on my own. Difficult to rouse the motivation for one at times. The last time i had a day like this, i found myself eating a whole tin of artichoke hearts straight out of the tin. And it was bliss. Heston, eat your heart out.


Thursday, 24 November 2011

November 24th - Two accusing aubergines

Dear Nigel,

I had been watching the pair of them for some time as they sat there expectantly in their sussex trug. They looked back today, accusingly. "Use us or else"...they seemed to say. It always seems to get to this part of our relationship. They, in their first flush of youth, looked so inviting, so comely on the greengrocer's shelf , that i couldn't help myself and brought both back home with me. Now, the first flush of youth having sallowed and gone, they threaten to turn nasty and pull on my conscience so that i have no choice but to choose to have them both on a plate for tea. I turn to your "30 minute cook" book and soon they are grilling nicely in the oven with a sprinkling of garden thyme. I am experimenting with freezing herbs - my own, and shop-bought pots. It is time to use up all the hundreds of little lock'n'lock boxes i bought to fill with pureed baby food when my little ones were tiny. I think it works well - as good as fresh, or nearly, and topped with canned cherry tomatoes and parmesan, serves me well.

You eat quail and complain how stuff seems to jump into your basket in the supermarket when you're not looking. I have that problem too, only the basket is by necessity the largest trolley available and the stuff that jumps into my trolley is not avocados and mangoes and other scrumptious delights, but seems to be pringles and chocolate buttons and more chocolate and the sort of sweets i won't let them have. And i wonder how they got there. Often it is too late and the cashier is ringing them through the till as i spot them half-hidden on the belt.  It is less easy to be culinary creative with half a tube of pringles and a curly wurly.

Enjoy your quail. I suspect my larger teenagers would consider it finger food and remain waiting for the main event. Quantity over quality seems to be the order of their day.


Wednesday, 23 November 2011

November 23rd - An Aga is not a fashion accessory

Dear Nigel,

Good news, my bereavement period due to the loss of my Aga - still in the old house- is coming to an end.My ex- has promised to bring it over and install it by late february. It is a well-travelled Aga as this will be its fifth house, but then i wouldn't choose to leave the dog behind either. It does mean it won't be here for Christmas, but  we'll cope with this strange whirring cooker from which things keep falling off all the time. My ex- says it is a superior machine but i notice he's not planning to use it but is getting another Aga for himself; not particularly for cooking  on but for its looks and comfort, i suppose. - Could see a direct parallel there if i thought about it, so i won't.

I look at your ritual for cooking rice with awe and amazement. I still haven't completely sussed the route to the perfect rice. Sometimes i think i've got it right and then the next time i'm busy taking a lode of washing out of the machine and i forget and it's turned to wallpaper paste. I still make them eat it, though, and if anyone looks as if they're about to say anything, i frown.Come to think of it, you never see Nigella going upstairs with a pile of freshly laundered knickers or Delia removing the Turkey from just beyond the dog's jaws in the nick of time. Why not? I think i would prefer to see a bit of real life going on around these television presenter/cooks, all working supposedly from their beloved homes.

You say you ate too much yesterday so cook something light and simple today. We either have a feast or famine here. Sometimes the reasons are to do with time and what's been happening - last night, for instance, i was rushing out early to a concert. The children had been making shortbread shapes, pummelling them into submission on the baking sheets and throwing most of the mixture on to the floor, where the dog was eagerly hoovering up. Consquently, dinner was a batch of boiled eggs and soldiers. No longer from my beloved hens - Esmerelda, the tart, and my stand-offish cream legbar with her beautiful blue eggs, and the other girls - but free-range, at least, from the supermarket. Must find myself a decent supplier locally . I just haven't bothered to make the effort as yet. Keep hoping the house will sell and we'll be able to have a little patch of garden somewhere big-enough for the children to be able to take their little wire henbasket out to collect the  still-warm eggs from out of their straw beds.

Hope you feel cleansed and purified once more,


Tuesday, 22 November 2011

November 22nd - Cat out of the bag

Dear Nigel,
Had to go for a work-focused interview today. My baby is four year's old, my ex- shovelled us out eight months ago and i need to swallow my fear and do something about it. I'm one of those last breed of Dinosaurs known as the stay-at-home mother: i've been one for twenty five years now.I have my first family of five from my previous marriage, mostly grown-up now, and my two babies from my last partnership of six years.
I sit in the job centre hoping no-one i know saw me come in and i find myself telling this very nice lady that what i want to do is start my own business making puddings. I hadn't planned to say this but every time i think about what i want to do i come back to the same idea. I'm passionate about food and eating and the fact that the only qualification i have is that i've cooked for my family for the past twenty five years does not deter me.
Even our holidays have been focused around food - the detour to the little Lakeland village of Cartmell to pick up a sticky toffee pudding from its original post office home, to a cider farm in Herefordshire to see them making my favourite Dunkerton's Black Fox cider. The rest of the holiday has always had to fit in with the main event.So i'm back home armed with contacts for my research and feel curiously lifted.
I'm making soup for the freezer today. Christmas for us revolves around a series of soups for lunches over the festive period. Teenagers rise at all different hours and it's much easier to have something substantial ready and available than to hang around expecting cheer and conversation at a time to suit you. Dinner is a different matter altogether. This way the dog and i and the little people can take a flask of hot soup and get out into the hills - snow permitting. Today the soup is Butternut squash, orange and ginger, one of my all-time favourites, which i make every year due to its universal popularity in our household. Luckily i have my chest freezer back now. It had to be dug out of our old garage and the straw removed from it as i had been keeping supplies for my chickens next to it. Due to lack of space here it was necessary to throw out the sofa so it now sits comfortably beside the piano - but no one liked to sit in that room anyway
You make a mushroom lasagne with basil and cream for your vegie guests today. I love the indulgence of a real homemade pesto, too. I used to grow my own basil especially for the purpose but found i resented giving over my entire lovingly-tended supply for consumption in one single meal, preferring  to buy pots from elsewhere to use and keep my own plants for garnishing and for sinking my whole face into at intervals when i want to be transported out of a grey day to somewhere sun-drenched and vibrant.
Dreaming of dappled shade and bowls of sun-warmed olives,

Monday, 21 November 2011

November 21st - The best-equipped Bedroom this side of Bakewell

Dear Nigel,
You may not know this, but i have the best-equipped Bedroom this side of Bakewell.
I once lived in a large house with a wonderful walk-in pantry, but after finding silverfish in my Bread flour sacks due to the damp, i immediately decanted all my flours, sugars and other dry goods into hundreds of 2 litre le parfait jars. Living now in a much smaller house in which i don't have a walk-in anything, i found the best thing to do was to fill my fitted wardrope with the jars. So, should i wake in the middle of the night with an urgent desire to knock up a cake, i need only lean over and get everything i need from beside my bed.Of course it does rather enlarge my ideal work triangle in the kitchen having to leg-it up two flights of stairs every few minutes i'm baking.
I had to resort to the chocolate today after a very stressful meeting. I ate a whole bar of Green and Black's milk     chocolate without stopping. I can't abide the chocolate snobbery that looks down on anyone who dares to claim they like anything less than 70%. Probably one of the first things i ever heard you say which drew me to you was the admission that you liked to eat mars bars in bed. Man after my own heart, i thought.
I'm not sure i want to try your recipe for stale bread and mushy tomatoes today, it reminds me too much of the kind of meals i used to invent when we got our first house and the choice was eat or sort out the dry rot - the dry rot always won.
Hope you enjoyed your mushy tomato bread. No doubt all that work in the garden would have worked up an appetite, and everything tastes better then.
All the best,

Sunday, 20 November 2011

November 20th - Last of the Summer wine

Dear Nigel,
I was in feastive mood today, busy making things for the freezer and Christmas. For me, the most evocative aroma has always strangely been that of Summer berries gently poaching in their own juice, ready to made into Summer Pudding. This is because i don't particularly care for Christmas Pudding. So, while everyone else is busy tucking in i like to be reminded of long golden days and sunshine. Usually my mum gives me some raspberries and the blackberries are picked from the hedgerow by the children and i.
Dinner was a traditional Sunday Dinner of Spaghetti Bolognaise, as the maverick in me would prefer a roast on almost any other day. Years of my mother's splendid roasts have somehow left me with a memory of debilitating lunches, the smell of congealed gravy and dishwasher and an afternoon of best clothes and boredom: I hated Sundays. So now it's a down day and i can be creative once again.
I see you had a large salad with coppa and pecorino. The cheese i know and love but coppa? - no mention in my dictionary so can only suppose it's some kind of salami. I don't think salad really does it for me at this time of year.But i suppose it's a tad warmer in London than here in the highest town in the country. I bought a snow shovel in town yesterday and people stopped me all the way back."Come the snow", I found myself saying to some poor old dear, like an ancient sooth sayer, "there won't be any snow shovels to be found". This happened to me last year and snow lay thick on the ground for about three months as the council refused to spend any money moving it.The year before i had to dig my ex-partner out of a totally dark and empty Goyt valley at midnight with the aid of my trusty Landrover, Archie, - no Chelsea tractors here. So, if i give your salad a miss while i go and dig out my thermals, you'll understand.
Hope you get your appetite back again soon,

Saturday, 19 November 2011

November 19th - frugal food and fudge

Dear Nigel,
my apologies for calling you a top chef. ( I think you would rather be referred to as a good cook). There are far too many men in checked trousers out there on the tele, anyway. I want someone who will get me out of my armchair to make something because my life will be the richer for it and it's suddenly become something i can't bear to live a moment more without.
Today, i see you've been shopping in Chinatown, for pak choi and lychees and other delights that only townies and those in the more plummy provinces seem to have the option of foraging for. It always seems an irony to me that choice in the country in comparison is still so limited.
I could eat the slow-cooked duck with star anise and ginger you tucked into, right now, though i should be heading off to bed. I took the children to a switching on of twinkly lights in the little Peak District village of Castleton. Trooping round the village we tucked into bars of the most mouth-melting fudge from the real fudge shop.And, though i'm not usually a huge fan of the stuff, their triple chocolate layer made with Green and Black's finest had me polishing the lot off. Consequently, i wasn't feeling too peckish when we returned so we dined on bread and soup.
The soup was one i made a couple of days ago in large quantity. I like to keep one nestling on the back of the stove ready for any of my grown-up fledgelings to heat-and-eat on their way to somewhere else. This time it was creamy parsnip, leek and lemon  - another success from the New Covent Garden Soup Company people, whose recipes i seem to have systematically worked through. Counting the cost of a pressing Christmas with seven children descending makes any sort of little economies a blessing.
The little children don't eat the soup.
I don't suppose you have this problem? Guests who turn up and refuse to eat what you put on the table, or say,"Yuk , 'gusting." 'Gusting was one of my five year old's first words. Everything i provided was 'gusting for a long time. No doubt she would take one look at the pieces of plump, tender duck nestling on their little mounds of fluffy rice and declare "'Gusting",whilst pulling a strangulated face. Me, on the other hand, would be quietly licking the sticky juices off the plate with my finger.
Sweet dreams on an empty stomach,

Thursday, 17 November 2011

November 17th - Home to an empty fridge

Dear Nigel,
i choose today to start writing to you and am almost heartened to find myself echoed on your page as you fly back from America to an empty fridge. Instead of throwing things together from nothing to come out with a gourmet treat you decide to phone out for pizza and beer - a wise choice; why should a top chef always be singing and dancing for others delight?
Back home i'm looking at a small piece of cold chicken and considering my offspring - a fairly amenable sixteen year old boy and two little girls who eye everything new with suspicion, prefering to starve indefinitely if need be.I think it will have to be fajitas for Tom and i  and something slimy out of a tin, covered in a tomato sauce, for the little ones. We did make our Christmas Pudding last night; them weighing out and mixing all the ingredients. Molly dipped her spoon into the rum because it looked like water. i think she was too  embarrassed to make a fuss about the taste - either that or a i have a potential four year old alchie on my hands. Perhaps i shall have to start drawing lines on the bottles, all too accessable beside the fridge?
Best Wishes,