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Familiar Favourites

The White Hart Chocolate and Salted Caramel Pot

I’ve amusingly become one of those people that returns to the same place for holidays. A slave to my first born’s need for familiarity, we’ve been to Devon three years in a row. Having stayed in a family room for a wedding weekend, Premier Inn seems to have usurped Hotel Du Vin as our short break hotel of choice (number one son LOVED the breakfast choice featuring Coco Pops). But more on that another time.

It’s the pull of the contentedly familiar that also draws us back to The White Hart Pub in Pirbright, Surrey. We have dear friends who not only live south of the river but, rather inconveniently, south of the M25 as well. Pirbright is a well to do little village near Woking that is a sort of halfway point for us and our friends. It also happens to have a cosy little gastropub where the staff are very switched on to Serving the Kids First.

For a start, its location is perfect. Just opposite a pleasant village green with a pretty duck pond and a small (slightly scruffy) playground. It’s just the right size to go for a post-lunch stroll to give the kids and adults a chance to stretch their legs and burn off pudding. The pub does have a garden for those rare moments when the sun’s out and it’s warm enough to eat alfresco. One day we’ll be lucky enough to attempt that.

Don’t be put off by the large menu, the food is very good. The kids’ menu has about 4 or 5 choices: mini-burgers, pasta, chicken, fish and chips plus a whole pot of ice-cream for pudding. They do actually serve them first and let us adults linger a while to ponder the more extensive grown up menu. Number one son went for the spaghetti with meatballs, a generous portion for a 4 year old, yet he somehow managed to inhale the lot before our mains turned up.  I ordered the surf n turf without the surf. It was so much better than I was expecting – a succulent slab of slow roasted pork belly resting on a bed of mash, topped with a crisply battered apple fritter and a velvety slice of black pudding on the side. A million calories and totally worth the sitting-in-30-minutes-of traffic-on-the-North-Circular. The baby was offered various bits from everyone’s plate but only managed to nibble on a few green beans and then lasso himself and anyone with range on some spaghetti strands.

Number one son and our friends’ daughter sloped off into a corner to compare notes (talk at each other) while the parents tucked into their dishes. Our friends’ baby sat beautifully in his highchair for most of the meal, diligently opening his mouth for spoons and snacks. Our own baby played his usual game of pass the parcel, with himself as the parcel. So both my husband and I got to have that half distracted conversation with friends where you end up repeating yourself a lot and not really ever finishing what you meant to say. It’s ok though, we’ve massively lowered our expectations on what constitutes a ‘catch up’ with other parents. If we come away with 3 new pieces of information then we can nod our heads and say ‘lovely to catch up’ during the goodbyes.

The kids peaked early on their ice-cream, about half an hour before we’d finished our mains. But I stubbornly insisted on ordering pudding even though we may have been outstaying our welcome with the kids now running laps around the table. Despite all our attempts at shovelling food into the baby he’s still breastfeeding so I NEED to keep my energy levels up. I can confirm that the chocolate and salted caramel pot was every bit as rich, gooey and heavenly as it looks. Definitely only for those looking to gain weight.

We finally got round to paying the bill and changing nappies that needed changing (downstairs baby-change in the disabled loos), re-layering the hoodies, cardies and coats onto the 4 year olds and herding our party out the door and over to the park. As the dads pushed the kids on the swings the other mum and I worked out the last time we’d been here based on how pregnant we had been. We’d both had a slightly worrying time with the beginning of our pregnancies so it was something of a relief to be able to return to this neutral ground, this familiar place, where we’d last been so nervous with both our ‘happy ever afters’ to share. Next time we meet here, I mused, the babies will be toddlers, the ground will be drier and they’ll be running after their older siblings trying to climb onto the slide that’s too high for them. And I’ll get to try something else on the dessert menu.

Taking Liberty’s

Liberty Caesar Salad

Central London. It’s big, it’s dirty and it’s full of tourists. Not somewhere you’d take a baby for the good of their health, but then I live in London so I probably made a choice about location vs health a long time ago.

It is, however, full of restaurants and cafes, so sooner or later I was bound to end up negotiating a buggy southbound on the Northern Line. I remember being absolutely terrified of taking number one son on the tube. The germs, the dust, the tourists! But much like everything else that you do for the first time after having a baby, it’s not that bad and the more you do it the easier it gets.

And once you’re past the psychological barrier that is Dirty Dangerous London, you remember that it is also a glamorous place with a rich history and incredible architecture and beautiful things. Qualities that can also be attributed to one of my favourite museums, I mean shops: Liberty.

Liberty probably isn’t particularly TODDLER friendly. The thought of snot-encrusted-wotsit-stained little fingers escaping out of the cafe towards the silk Stella McCartney dresses is enough to keep most mums with toddlers to a quick race round Topshop and then lunch at an Italian chain. Surprisingly, the tea room at Liberty does have highchairs so it is BABY friendly.

Having overestimated the time it takes to travel out of rush hour, Nanna and I paid a small visit to Liberty’s chocolate shop to kill time. It’s my kind of heaven. It’s also the sort of place where, if you want , you can spend over £50 on a not very large box of chocolates. Definitely not the family-box-of-roses end of the market. It was the week before Valentine’s day and the shelves were clearly stocked for those who wanted to impress by spending silly money on fancy wrappers, but I could resist. Number one son got a little gift of chocolate ladybirds and the husband got some heart shaped pralines (which we would of course share).

Having itched that particular scratch, we met with our glamorous lunch date and wheeled the buggy to the ornate lift. The cafe is on the second floor, open from 10am till 7pm Monday to Saturday and 12pm to 5pm on Sundays (when they also do brunch). The staff were gorgeous and friendly, seating us at the largest table so we could spread out various toys, sippy cups and packets of rice cakes. The baby refused to sit in the highchair, but it was nice to have the option.

Liberty really is all about the experience, so perhaps we should have gone for the afternoon tea. As the ladies seated next to us did. Instead we did the usual soup/salad, which is the most economical choice. Well, I did and so did our glamorous lunch date. Nanna, wanting to really throw herself into the full decadent-lady-who-lunches-at-Liberty role, ordered the lamb hot pot. The most expensive item on the menu.

It wasn’t the speediest of orders but my chicken caesar salad eventually arrived with a tempura’d anchovy, a poached quail’s egg and a delicate sliver of crisp pancetta. The baby refused to partake in such nonsense and insisted on sleeping attached to my boob. All the more for me. Nanna’s lamb hot pot arrived in what must be the smallest Le Creuset pot in existence. It’s very rich, Nanna exclaimed as she put her reading glasses on to search for lamb in the pot. She found three delicious tiny pieces.

With the long wait for our food and then having to juggle a grouchy then sleeping son, lunch took our glamorous date over her allocated hour. So, disappointingly, we had to pass on tea and cake. Which was probably a good thing for our wallets as Nanna’s ‘lamb’ hot pot pushed the bill to eye-watering heights. All part of the experience!

We packed up and strapped the baby into the buggy with seasoned military precision ready to dodge thse pesky tourists loitering around Oxford Circus. With the chocolates in the purple bag swinging from the buggy handle, we had our own little souvenir of the daytrip to take home on the tube. A successful day out in London with the baby, but ultimately it was a selfish indulgence for the grown ups. We ARE allowed those from time to time, but I promised to take the baby to the local play group the next day to make up for it. Luckily for me, the play group was free.

To Market to Market

PinkCakes

Remember when Sunday mornings were sacred? Lie-in, papers in bed, brunch. We knew we’d be giving all that up for a good long while when we decided to start a family. Number one son was certainly trial by fire, regularly waking anytime from 5am ready to start the day or at least wail at us until we got up and headed downstairs to switch CBeebies on. Now he can work the DVD player you’d think he’d be ok with some innapropriately violent cartoon, but he still insists an adult accompanies him.

One good thing about getting up early on a Sunday is being able to do things like go to the Farmers Market. We still can’t manage to get out of the house before 10am but luckily the market doesn’t open till 10.

Thinking the weather had got milder (it hadn’t) I coaxed Family Affinita up to Alexandra Palace, last Sunday, with the promise of sausage sandwiches and cake pops.

CakePop

It’s a good idea to go on an empty stomach as there’s a lot you can eat while wandering around. The market has two of the things that number one son can eat while mobile (not including cake) for a winter walking picnic – the aforementioned sausage sandwich and cheese toasties.

The Giggly Pig sausage stand have plenty of samples, number one son asked if Welsh Dragon sausages were made with real dragon meat. I was particularly pleased with the cheese toastie stand that had little cubes of Barber’s to nibble on. Their toasties are impressive to look at too, great big slabs of sourdough bread with a thick pile of grated cheese oozing out the sides. I keep meaning to try one of them but I was saving myself for the sausages.

sausage bap

The baby was happy with chewing on the crust of sourdough samples from a stall purporting to sell the Best Salt Beef Sandwiches. They looked like the sort of meat towers you’d find on Man V Food, so definitely one to plan for in advance (perhaps walk the dog first).

Husband eschewed the beef for the morrocan flatbreads – which I wouldn’t recommend you eat as a whole meal, the fillings are sparse. The bread is traditionally made as an accompaniment so should be eaten with something else.

flatbread

There are plenty of cake stalls to choose from, which is never a bad thing unless you’ve got a 4 year old boy who has just inhaled a cake pop and is asking what should his next cake be? While his father distracted him with a hot chocolate I bought a slice of a german almond cake that had a layer of custard through the middle. Kept well in the fridge till the next day.

cream cakes

german cake

On sunnier days you could linger and pick up the main ingredients for a sit-down picnic to have on one of the open spaces around Ally Pally. There are quiches, cheeses and salads galore…all you need is a blanket.

salads

quiches

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For a cold February weekend, however, we were lucky to clock up nearly an hour’s wandering before number one son proclaimed it was too cold and NOTHING would help. The dog was shivering too. We crunched back to the car with some goodies to take back for Nanna, glad to have caught some fresh air and done something on a Sunday morning other than watch the Ben 10 DVD on loop.

Nearly Grown Up Coffee & Walnut Cake

Coffee and Walnut Cake

My big little brother turned 13 earlier on in the month (yes another bloody January birthday). With 21 years between us, I take my big sister duties seriously and last year we did a bowling AND Nandos party followed by a giant Chocolate Muffin Cake at home. However, this year all sorts of family fireworks went off in the New Year. Not the fun kind, unfortunately, and at some point during the prolonged re-enactment of a shouty Eastenders episode big little brother had his birthday.

Once the dust had settled, Aunty Ga took it upon herself to take the new manboy for a belated birthday trip ‘down Westfield, it’s what he wants’. It seems not much has changed in twenty years, the youth of today still like to hang out in shopping centres.

Now officially a teenager, complete with a fuzzy top lip and an obsession with men’s fragrance, it only seemed fitting to provide a more grown up cake for his birthday. Hello Coffee & Walnut Cake. It’s just a coincidence that I’d been craving a slice of this for the last two weeks.

Big little brother is a fan of coffee. Our father drinks an entire moka pot’s worth of coffee for breakfast (that’s four single espressos), and so the tradition must continue. He has started off as we all did, a very milky coffee with at least two sugars. Over the years he’ll increase the coffee and decrease the milk till he’s drinking neat espressos. Then he’ll be a man.

This recipe is from Cupcakes from the Primrose Bakery, which I don’t bake from anywhere near as much as number one son would like me to. Incidentally, the four year old LOVED this cake.

Coffee & Walnut Cake

Ingredients

For the sponge:
175g unsalted butter
175g golden caster sugar
3 large eggs
175g self-raising flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
75g walnuts plus 10-12 walnut halves for decorating
1 ½ tablespoons instant coffee (I used instant espresso powder) mixed with 2 tablespoons boiling water

For the syrup (which we left out as I didn’t want to go overboard on the caffeine):
1 tablespoon intant coffee
50g Demerara sugar
55ml boiling water

Coffee Buttercream Icing:
150g unsalted butter at room temperature
1 tablespoon semi-skimmed milk at room temperature
2 teaspoons instant espresso powder dissolved in a small amount of hot water
350g icing sugar, sifted
(the book says make 1.5 batches of the above amounts but when we did this the icing was so thick I think in hindsight we would have been ok with just one batch)

Pre-heat oven to 170C. Grease and baseline two 20cm cake tins (we were fine with 22cm).

In a large mixing bowl cream the butter and sugar until pale and smooth – this will take 3-5 minutes using an electric hand mixer. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing for a few minutes after each addition. Add the flour and baking powder and beat well.

Grind the walnuts in a food processor for about 30 seconds, not too fine. Gently fold in the coffee and ground walnuts to the batter. The mixture should have a marbled effect.

Divide the mixture evenly between the tins, bake for 25 minutes until raised and golden brown. A skewer inserted into the centre should come out clean.

Let the cakes cool in the tins. At this point, if you’re using it, make up the syrup by combining ingredients in a jug and stirring till the sugar has dissolved. Prick the sponges with a fork and brush the syrup on and leave to soak in.

If not using syrup, take the cakes out of their tins after 10 minutes and leave to cool on a rack. Make up the icing in a large mixing bowl. Put all the ingredients except half the sugar into the bowl and cream gently by hand, once combined add the rest of the sugar and combine by hand. Then beat with an electric hand mixer for at least 5 minutes till its whipped, light and fluffy.

Spread half the icing on one sponge, sandwich the other sponge on top and spread the rest of the icing on the second layer. Decorate with the walnut halves.

Hounding for Cake

Nut tart

We have a dog. A little Chihuahua-pug cross – a chug. He belongs to my sister, Aunty Ga, as she’s known to the children. Aunty Ga is currently residing with us, which has raised all sorts of logistical issues – the main one being ‘How do we go to cafes with a dog?’

There are quite a few outdoor contenders around the hills of North London, all much more pleasant in the spring and simply glorious in the summer. However, this was a particularly cold and snowy week and called for a location where the dog could safely sit outside while we thawed out with a warm beverage inside. The Brewhouse Cafe at Kenwood House is good for this.

Kenwood House itself is currently closed until 28th March – but the grounds and the cafe are open. There are buggy/wheelchair friendly paths around the grounds by the house, but for those with off-roaders or fancy a challenge the walk down to and around the pond is pretty. More so in the snow.

Doubling up our socks and pulling on wellies we piled into Nanna’s car and parked at the top of The Bishops Avenue (London’s most ridiculous display of wealth without taste). There is a car park at Kenwood, which is usually full at weekends and sunny weekdays. It’s also well served by buses, but none particularly direct from our neck of the woods.

We crunched our way over the ice past the scaffolded house to the cafe where they’d cranked the heating up to a cosy tropical setting, even with the double height ceiling. The chug was tethered just outside the door amongst some other posh breeds (a couple of Hush Puppie dogs), so we were confident that he was in good company.

As to be expected for an English Heritage venue in London, the prices aren’t cheap – but the portions are good and there is, of course, a wide selection of cake. Nanna opted for a Spiced Chicken and Rice dish, while I played safe with Carrot and Coriander soup (to leave room for cake). Aunty Ga grabbed a sausage sandwich so that she could walk the dog while we attempted to feed the non-eating baby. The menu doesn’t obviously cater for children and babies but there was an enormous stack of highchairs so theoretically every table could have a child sat at it. The website says they do child sized portions, but it would be wise to bring baby mush from home.

Despite the snow, the cafe was busy with dog walkers and older artsy looking folk, who all smiled cheerily at the baby as he insisted on being paraded up and down the flagstone floor. I don’t know why this surprised me, I always expect to get dirty looks from other people visiting stately homes. Perhaps because I have this impression that stately homes are supposed to be quiet, stuffy, mausoleum type places for quiet reflection – and therefore not suitable for babies. I’m sure this is just bad stereotyping on my part.

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It’s the law that on cold days you must have cake, and I’m a stickler for rules. As with their main courses, the cake portions are pretty massive so in theory we could have shared (ha!). Nanna went for the Bread pudding, which really is more appropriate after a two hour trek round the heath, but she soldiered through half of it bringing the rest home in a napkin. Aunty Ga chose the carrot cake, a heavy brick of sugary, dense, cinnamonny sponge. Not bad for a cafe cake but she’s been spoilt with too much of the homemade variety. I went for the honey and nut tart simply because it looked amazing. Coma-inducingly sweet, and almost like a nut brittle on top of a very gooey pecan tart. I liked it.

After the baby had his dessert (milk) it was only right that we all took the dog for yet another walk in order to justify all the calories we’d consumed. Nanna commented on how she couldn’t smell anything – which I think was her way of saying how fresh the air was. The Maclaren managed most of the route around the pond, only needing carrying over the boggiest of bogs that even 4 days of snow couldn’t freeze over. We picked our way through the slush and iced over puddles and even managed to raise our heartrates slightly. The dog (and us) thoroughly walked out, we headed back to the car in the hope that the ride home would lull both the dog and the baby to sleep.

Malteser Birthday Cake

Malteser Cake

January birthdays, the epitome of bad scheduling. We’re all skint from buying too many presents for Christmas, plus we’re either sick of eating or just plain sick from some winter virus. So those January-borns end up apologising most of their lives for the inconvenience of coming into the world during the one month that nobody wants to celebrate. I blame the parents.

My husband, the apologist, is an early January baby. Sometimes I’m organised enough to have sorted out both Christmas and birthday presents before Christmas, but this wasn’t one of those years. I do, however, believe that there is no excuse for not baking a birthday cake. It has to be a different one every year – I don’t think I’ve ever baked the same birthday cake twice, with so many cakes out there to be made why would you want to?

This year’s offering was straight out of Nigella’s Feast book from the Chocolate Cake Hall of Fame: The Malteser Cake. I had one eye on number one son expecting a huge slab of it, so this is a perfect ‘for all ages’ recipe. With bonus sweets on top.

Chocolate Malteser Cake

Ingredients

For the cake:
150g soft light brown sugar
100g caster sugar
3 eggs
175ml milk
15g butter
2 tablespoons Horlicks
175g plain flour
25g cocoa, sieved
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

For the icing:
250g icing sugar
1 teaspoon cocoa
45g Horlicks
125g soft unsalted butter
2 tablespoons boiling water
2 x 37g packets of Maltesers

Preheat oven to 170C. Butter and line two 20cm sandwich tins. Mine are 22cm and weren’t a problem.

Put the milk, butter and Horlicks into a saucepan and heat until the butter melts and the mixture is hot, but not boiling. While this is happening whisk the sugars and eggs in a big mixing bowl. Once they’re light and frothy add the hot Horlicks mixture and then fold in the flour, cocoa, baking powder and bicarb of soda. I found the mixture to be quite runny but again, this seemed to bake fine.

Divide the batter between the tins and bake for 25 minutes. Let them cool on a rack for about 5-10 minutes then turn them out of their tins while you get on with the icing.

Nigella professes to use a processor with the icing ingredients, but I did this by hand. Cream the icing sugar and butter, add sieved cocoa and Horlicks and loosen with the water, then beat with an electric mixer.

Sandwich the cold sponges with half the buttercream then ice the top with the rest. I opted for the ‘traditional’ Malteser crown to decorate so there was room for the birthday candles in the middle.

And yes it does taste just like Maltesers!

Frozen Frenzy

Beef Wellington

Much like the Christmas decorations that only recently went back into the loft, I really should have written this blog post about our Christmas lunch BEFORE the 6th of January. However, I admit I’ve found it difficult to shake off that feeling of lazy procrastination that sets in around Boxing Day and replace it with the Get Up and Go! that the New Year is supposed to usher in.

In the run up to Christmas you can’t move for articles, adverts, TV shows teeming with advice on how to cook a Christmas dinner. I think Gordon even did some sort of cookalong on Christmas Day – which surely is for people who have NO INTENTION of cooking along. If you’re hosting lunch, dinner, whatever, on Christmas Day there’s an enormous amount of pressure to serve up a spectacular feast. When really it’s just a roast dinner with crackers.

I’d decided that this time I wasn’t going to be swept along in the mad current of turkey brining and basting – I fancied something different. Like beef. So after much unresolved discussion and rifling through various supermarket Christmas food catalogues, Nanna waltzed into Cook and ordered a Beef Wellington (and side dish of braised red cabbage) to be picked up on the evening of the 23rd.

This stroke of genius meant we only needed to prepare the vegetables (peeled and chopped the night before) and start cooking an hour before we intended to eat. Which left most of the morning clear for the important task of present opening (well, phase one of presents), which really makes it much more ‘family-friendly’ day.

All of Cook’s food is frozen, the Beef Wellington went straight into the fridge so it would be defrosted in time for lunch on Christmas Day. Instructions were simple, with timings for rare and medium beef (a poke in the eye for those who like it well done). The port jus that accompanied it was microwaveable at the last minute, so handy when you’re running out of pots and pans.

The meal prep ran so smoothly, that we actually managed to eat on time this year. Apart from the baby, who had chosen Christmas Day to start teething again. Not only were we running to schedule, but we actually remembered to pull the crackers and wear the crowns BEFORE the meal started.

The beef cooked perfectly medium and served 6 very generous portions which could definitely have stretched to 8. All the grown ups agreed it was Very Good Beef. The port jus was a little on the salty side, but still pretty special. Number one son loaded up on his starter and trimmings so I couldn’t get a comment from him on the beef, but at 4 years old he’s at that age where he’s fully immersed in the Christmas Day experience (minus the booze), so he was still happy to remain at the table and trade cracker jokes.

I’d been looking forward to seeing number two son gnawing on a piece of beef and chucking Brussels sprouts around, while giggling at everyone around – but, as with all these events where the expectations generally outweigh the end result, he fell asleep and ate an hour after we did.

Despite my slackness over the past few weeks, I do genuinely enjoy cooking and having people over for dinner. I like creating the big ticket items from scratch that impress people – whether it’s roasts, pies or tagines.  I think Cook may have its place though and I’m keen to try their other dishes, perhaps in the same way that Nanna can’t give up on her fast food. There will be times when life suddenly gets busier than expected and I’ll have a Lunch At Ours smack bang in the middle of chaos.  I’ll be too busy, rather than too lazy. Then I’ll feel validated in getting out the frozen pie.

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