It’s Not My Favourite

I am the proud parent of a fussy eater. 

Since the age of about 4 days my child has been a pain in the arse when it comes to food. At one of the daily home invasions from the community midwife, I was informed that I wasn’t breast feeding correctly and this squawking, angry bundle of baby had lost half of her birth weight. We were hot-footed back to hospital where we were treated to a gruelling 4 hour feeding schedule of trying and failing to feed her myself, desperately trying to express, bottle feeding expressed milk and topping up with formula. Every. Four. Hours. For three whole days. There was much crying, so much mama-guilt, heaps of anxiety and virtually no sleep. 

We eventually got into the swing of things and started on our next food hurdle: weaning. 

I became a mum at 19 and I hadn’t had a chance to read the parenting books. I was too busy being shit scared to read the”how to keep it alive” manuals from the current child rearing guru. I had some not-very-helpful leaflets from my very lovely, but alas, not-very-helpful health visitor. But we gave it a bash. Stinky, me and Jake and a bowl of mashed up banana. Compared to breast feeding, this was a walk in the park. We fed her all sorts of things and she loved it (mostly). Apparently we were doing “baby led weaning”. We basically just put food in front of her and and watched while she squelched it between her fingers and rubbed it in her ear holes. 


Shortly after we started weaning we had a lot of things change in our lives. We moved house twice in six months, I went back to work full time, Jake started university and Stinky started nursery. At 18 months, all of this change must have been a lot to deal with for such a tiny human. After our second move, Stinky had started to refuse to try new foods. She even started refusing foods she had previously enjoyed. The list of acceptable foods was short: apples, bananas, blueberries, strawberries, yoghurt, peas, mashed potato. Like I said, short. 

Phsycologists say that every toddler goes through a fussy eating phase, usually at about 16 months. Typically this is when we start feeding our little darlings new foods. Weaning is going so well; you’ve graduated from mush to slightly lumpy mush, then finger food and you get cocky. One dinner time you just go right ahead and put something completely obscene like aubergine on your toddler’s plate and they freak the fuck out. They’ve never seen it before, never smelled or touched anything like it and they certainly won’t be putting in their mouth. If your darling child is anything like mine, they’ll probably stage the toddler version of a dirty protest by smearing it across the magnolia walls of your rented house. 

According to psychologists this is normal. It’s called Neophobia, which is the fear of new foods. It’s an evolutionary survival instinct which stops us from eating food which may be harmful to us. For example, many green vegetables like broccoli and sprouts have a bitter taste, just like a poisonous Berry in the wild might. This translates to a developing toddler’s brain as “sprouts are poison”. 

It’s estimated that a third of under 5s go through a fussy eating phase. Whilst it’s really very easy to judge other parents for their child’s eating habits, our blame yourself, some research has suggested that genetics can be partly to blame for fussy eating. My child is not an adventurous child; she’s highly suspicious of new things and everything has to be thoroughly mulled over so it stands to reason that those personality traits are projected on to the dinner table. Finding this out did good things for my gut wrenching mama-guilt. It’s not entirely my fault for not being a stay at home mum after all. She is who she is. 

I’ve heard that there are two types of people: those that eat to live and those that live to eat. As a chef and general food obsessed person, I am definitely in the live to eat category and it hurts my soul to see my child not sharing my love of food. At age nearly 8, we have made considerable progress. Long gone are the days of Mash Pandas: a phase where she would only eat mash, peas and sausage artfully arranged in the shape of a panda. What was I thinking?

So how did we get over the crippling fussiness? 

First off I let go of the mama-guilt, leave the control-freak part of my personality at the front door and pour myself a large glass of stay calm (that’s a metaphor by the way, wine is not the answer). We sit down together as a family, we eat the same meal, we chat and we laugh and enjoy our meal. Stinky is a painfully slow eater (made worse by the fact that she never stops talking) but I try not to let her sit in front of her plate while her food gets cold. No one wants to eat cold, congealed spaghetti. Some gentle encouragement is often required but there’s a fine line between encouraging her to shut up and eat and commencing a bloody battle of wills over the dining table. Watching her prod at a lovingly prepared supper fills me with rage and I’m certain that my nagging makes her furious. We try our very best as parents to not make dinner time a big deal, to not lumber her with a lifelong complex. I certainly don’t want that time I made her eat butternut squash whilst she gagged because it was stringy to be something she tells her therapist in later life. 


Another thing which helped with the general suspicion of funny looking food was shopping and cooking together. Food should be fun, not a chore or something to get your knickers in a twist over. Grocery shopping as a family gives Stinky a chance to have her say in what we eat. I ask her what she would like for dinner (normally pizza, meatballs or shepherds pie) and she feels involved in our decision making. It also means she can identify lots of different foods, she feels comfortable eating new fruits and vegetables and because of that is able to enjoy a more varied diet. That being said, she might be able to identify a celeriac but she sure as hell wouldn’t touch it with a shitty stick, let alone eat it. 

My last piece of advice is to just keep trying. Keep offering new foods, don’t make different dinners and don’t give up on your child. I never gave Stink peppers, thinking there was no way she’d eat it and then one day, Jake put some on her plate. She ate them by accident and loved them. Take pleasure in the small victories. After 4 years of refusing to eat meat (too chewy) she discovered bacon and fell in love. She then discovered pigs in blankets and it blew her tiny mind. She’s recently discovered that burgers are nice, and chips are acceptable but not the fat ones. They won’t like everything, every time but if they know you won’t make a big fuss over a bit of wasted food then they’re more likely to eat it. I’ve always discouraged the phrase “I don’t like it” because it’s so negative and final. It basically says “I will never eat this ever again”. Instead she tells me it’s “not my favourite” and I can live with that. 

Iced Buns

It is a well known fact that nobody can say no to an iced bun. They’re nothing special, but the sweet simplicity of an iced bun is irresistible. Maybe it’s the way that the soft, enriched white bun with its layer of sweet icing is quite simply ‘enough’. Enough softness, enough chewiness, enough sugary sweetness. And ‘enough’ is all anyone really wants from life, isn’t it?

Maybe it’s their magical powers of taking us back to our childhood. Every time I make iced buns they are greeted with delighted cries of “I haven’t had these since I was a kid”. I know I certainly have many fond memories of eating iced buns as a child. They remind me of family picnics, of Sunday afternoons and of squashing around my grandmas kitchen table, elbow to elbow with my cousins.


Ingredients 

  • 325g strong white flour
  • 150g warm milk
  • 40g butter
  • 40g caster sugar
  • 5g salt
  • 10g fresh yeast
  • 1 egg
  • 200g icing sugar
  • Water
  • Egg wash (beaten egg with a pinch of salt and a dash of milk)

Method

  1. To make your dough, place the dry ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the egg and butter. Dissolve the yeast into the warm milk and pour in to the bowl. Mix for approximately 7 minutes, until a soft and elastic dough has formed. This dough will feel a little sticky.
  2. Leave to prove in a warm place for a couple of hours. Sweet doughs will often take a little longer to prove because of the extra fat, but just be patient.
  3. When the dough has risen, turn it out onto a floured work surface. Divide your dough into equal portions. I scale mine to 50g as I prefer a daintier bun, but if you like a larger bun weigh out larger portions.
  4. Using your hand and as little flour as possible, roll each portion of dough into a ball. Then roll each ball into a sausage shape.
  5. Place the shaped dough on a lined baking tray. They need to be about 1.5cm away from each other to ensure they batch. This simply means that they touch at the sides whilst they bake. It means you get soft fluffy edges and it also encourages the buns to be taller.
  6. Cover the buns with a clean tea towel and leave to rise for 30 minutes. Preheat your oven to 200 degrees C or gas mark 6.
  7. Before you bake the buns, give them an egg wash to make sure they come out shiny and golden.
  8. Bake the buns for 10-15 minutes. They should be well risen and golden in colour.
  9. Whilst the buns are in the oven, make the icing by adding water a drop at a time to icing sugar. It needs to be quite thick and spreadable.
  10. Allow the buns to cool,completely before icing them. 


Winter Slaw

 Healthy eating can often seem like hard work in the winter. When it’s dark at 4pm, freezing cold outside and shitting it down with rain, all I want to eat is stodgy, brown foods. I never think of salad because winter vegetables are generally not good salad ingredients. Sprout salad, anyone? 

This is a doddle to throw together but adds a pop of lovely pastel purple to your dinner table. I’ve given the quantities to make enough for a side for 4 people and some left over. If you’re cooking for a crowd (or you just really love slaw) then double up the ingredients. This will keep in an airtight container for 3-4 days in your fridge which also makes it a good make ahead dish. 

If you have a food processor or mandolin in your kitchen, you should definitely use it to make this salad. I chucked all of the veg for this in my magimix (I have a mandolin too, but I’m a bit scared of it) with the slicing attachment and it was easy as hell and took no time at all. If you prefer a slightly chunkier slaw (or you don’t own a food processor) just slice it all by hand using a sharp chefs knife and tell all your mates it’s meant to be rustic.


Ingredients

  • 1/2 a small red cabbage
  • 1 Apple
  • 1 Red Onion
  • 2 sticks of celery
  • A handful of crushed hazelnuts
  • 100g Stilton
  • 2 tbsp creme fraiche 
  • 1 tbsp mayonnaise
  • 1 tsp Dijon Mustard
  • 1 tbsp cider vinegar
  • Pinch of hot chilli powder (optional)


Method

  1. Prepare your dressing in a large mixing bowl by mixing all of the wet ingredients and crumbling in the Stilton. Save some Stilton to use as a garnish. Season your dressing to taste with salt, pepper and sugar if it’s too sour for you. Add the chilli powder if using.
  2. Slice all of your vegetables, either by hand or using a food processor or mandolin (watch your fingers). Add these to the bowl of dressing.
  3. Crush your nuts (lol) using the blade of a large knife. Add these to the bowl, saving some to sprinkle over the top.
  4. Give everything a really good mix and season again if needs be.
  5. If your not eating this right away, transfer to a clean container and place in the fridge. If you are serving right away, transfer to a clean serving bowl and garnish with the reserved Stilton and nuts. If you don’t care much for fancy serving bowls, plonk the mixing bowl on your dinner table and get stuck in.




Spiced Orange Polenta Cake

If you follow me on Facebook or instgram you’ll have seen that last week I was on holiday with my family in beautiful Marrakech. We spent our time lounging on rooftops and mooching around the souks in the thirty degree heat. Coming back to th UK to find that winter has finally arrived was certainly a shock.

In Marrakech we saw orange trees everywhere and the smell from the many orange juice vendors in Jmaa el Fnaa square is divine. We wandered around the labyrinth of alleyways in the Medina and got pleasantly lost, stumbling across shops selling exotic treasures. I particularly loved the spice souks; the heady smell of rich spices piled high and shaped into cones and the sight of shops laden with dried chillies and things I couldn’t even identify was magnificent. 

This Spiced orange cake is inspired by the flavours that remind me of Marrakech. It’s gluten free, using Polenta and Almond, and can easily be made dairy free by substituting the butter for a soya based margarine. As usual, I’ve used whole spices and ground them myself to make sure they are as fresh and fragrant as possible. If you’re not a fan of the spices I’ve used, leave them out or substitute them for whichever spices you prefer. I’ve chosen to ice this cake with an intense orange icing, but it’s sweet and moist enough to be simply dusted with icing sugar. It is also really delicious served warm from the oven, with mascarpone or ice cream.

Ingredients 

  • 200g butter, melted and cooled
  • 200g fine Polenta
  • 100g ground almonds
  • 200g caster sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 7g gluten free baking powder
  • The zest of one orange
  • 1 star anise, 3 cloves, the seeds of 5 Cardomom pods, a small piece of ginger and a small piece of cinnamon, all finely ground. 

For the syrup:

  • The juice of one orange
  • 100g sugar
  • 100g water
  • 3 star anise, 3 cloves and a small piece of cinnamon, left whole.

For the icing:

  • 200g icing sugar
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • Zest of half and orange
  • Juice of half an orange

Method

  1. Preheat your oven to 170 degrees C / gas mark 3. Grease and line an 8″ cake tin.
  2. Mix together the butter, sugar, spice and zest. 
  3. Add the eggs and whisk well.
  4. To this, add the Polenta, ground almonds and baking powder.
  5. Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 45-55 mins. The cake will feel springy when it is baked, and a skewer will come out clean.
  6. Whilst the cake is in the oven, make the syrup. Place all the ingredients in a saucepan, stir to dissolve the sugar and bring to a boil.
  7. Simmer for 5 minutes to reduce the liquid into a syrup. Leave to cool with the whole spices infusing. This will intensify the flavour.
  8. When the cake is baked, poke several holes in the top with a skewer and pour over the syrup. If you are using a loose bottomed tin be sure to place the cake on a tray or plate so that should any syrup escape out of the bottom it doesn’t make a sticky mess all over your kitchen.
  9. Allow the cake to cool in the tin for 20 minutes, the gently remove and place on a serving plate. Do not place on a wire rack as this will allow all of the syrup to escape. Because there is no gluten in this cake, it is very delicate so move as carefully as you can and as little as possible. 
  10. If you are icing the cake, leave to cool completely.
  11. To make the icing, place the icing sugar, honey and zest in a bowl. Add the orange juice a little at a time, mixing as you go. The icing should have a thick but still gloopy consistency. 
  12. When the cake is cool, carefully spoon the icing over the cake and use the back of a clean spoon to smooth it out. This cake is very delicate, so be careful not to tear up the top.