Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Children's Food Trust: Feeding the Family for Pennies Not Pounds

My daughter cooking the Speedy Biryani recipe
from The Children's Food Trust

Earlier this year, I was asked to do a guest blog for the Children's Food Trust on the topic of "Feeding the Family for Pennies Not Pounds".

Just in case it might be helpful for anyone, here's the link:

The post includes details on my top 10 tips on feeding children healthy food for less:

1. Try tinned and frozen, not just fresh
2. Check the price per unit
3. Buy big (if you can!)
4. Switch to value brands
5. Look for cheaper alternatives
6. Go veggie
7. Make your own snacks
8. Take your own food
9. Beware of pester power
10. Waste not, want not

Part of my suggestion about cheaper alternatives, which didn't make it onto the website, was adding extra veg to stretch more expensive meat, like carrots, onion and broccoli to a stir fry, or baked beans to the mince in cottage pie.

If you'd like the recipe for cottage pie that stretches the mince with extra veg, you can find it here:

I really support the aims of The Children's Food Trust, in encouraging people to cook at home and help their children learn how to cook. The website itself has some great tips, recipes and videos.

Originally I came across the Children's Food Trust when we registered to take part in the Big Cookathon 2015, and joined loads of other families, schools, clubs and workplaces in cooking Speedy Biryani during the weekend of March 6 to 9.

I'm always keen to encourage the kids to cook, and the chance of winning a share of £15,000 in prizes was a definite incentive!

My daughter and I prepared for it by watching  a "Ben's Beginners" video, and came away with some top advice about shaking our eggs to make sure the yolk stayed in the middle, making bridges with our hands to chop safely, and the mantra "if it rocks, it's wrong" when putting food on the chopping board. My daughter and I then cooked the Speedy Biryani, and my son and husband helped hoover up the results.

Even better, we filled in a form and sent some photos afterwards, and were delighted to win one of the Family & Friends prizes of £200. Many cheers!

So check out the website if you might be vaguely interested, and watch out for the Big Cookathon next year, as it really is worth giving it a whirl.

(Although I can't promise that you won't end up with a hamster, after we used some of the prize money to buy my daughter her longed-for pet.)

Ginger the Houdini hamster

Monday, 26 October 2015

Surprisingly sugary cereals

Breakfast cereals are a battleground in my family.

Faced with supermarket shelves groaning with boxes of cereal, my children focus unswervingly on anything stuffed with sugar, covered in cartoons or promising toys, and ideally all three.

When did chocolate become a breakfast thing anyway? Cocopops, Cookie Crisp, Nesquik Chocolate Cereal, Krave, they're all at it. Now you can even buy Weetabix with chocolate, damn it.
Weetabix with chocolate? Traitors.

I get to play the part of mean mummy, ranting on about sugar content and sneaking in cheaper own-brand or value versions.

I try to steer my children in the direction of healthier alternatives like porridge, rice krispies, weetabix and shredded wheat, even though I appreciate shredded wheat is the rough equivalent of eating a bowl of thatched roof with milk on it. They are prepared to eat porridge sometimes - provided it's doused in golden syrup, sigh.

Anyway, last month we'd bought an unusually large range of cereals, suckered in by a Kellogg's offer including free tickets to Legoland.  Spurred on by a particularly irritating Krave advert (cereal spawn of Pepperami, I reckon), I actually had a look at the labels.

I got my daughter to help order the boxes based on their sugar content, because yes it's all fun in the mornings round here, and was surprised at the results.

Our cereals, from least sugar on the left, to tooth-bustingly crammed with sugar on the right

Sure, I'd guessed that the porridge oats and Sainsburys Basics Breakfast Wholewheat Biscuits hiding on the left might have the lowest sugar content.

Plus I wasn't under any illusions that my husband's favourite honey nut cornflakes on the far right might be high in sugar, given the give-away honey reference. But wow, 36.3g per 100g? That's more than a third of the box.

I was actively surprised that Fruit & Fibre had the second highest sugar content, even more than the Rice Krispy Multigrain Shapes bought under pester power. It's got fruit, it's got fibre, it sounds so healthy? Turns out it packs out a quarter of the box with sugar: 24g per 100g cereal. No wonder my daughter is prepared to eat it.

I was also quite surprised that the worthy Bear Alpha Bites cereals, bought for their oh-so-educational letter shapes and fridge magnets, have pretty much the same sugar content as Shreddies, all around 15g of sugar per 100g cereal. Still not sure how my children will chow down Shreddies as a snack, but prove resistant to the "monstrously healthy" Alpha Bites, when they should have the same sweetness.

(Maybe it's because I've just read that Alpha Bites include coconut blossom nectar instead of refined sugar, and their taste buds are offended by the ridiculousness. Coconut blossom nectar? On the box it says "no added nonsense" - surely the manufacturer could be sued under the Trade Descriptions Act?)

So for all you fact fiends out there, the sugar contents per 100g were:

1.1g    Quaker Oats (tiny)
2.5g    Sainsbury's Basics Breakfast Wholewheat Biscuits(also tiny)
10g     Kellogg's Rice Krispies (bit of a leap there)
14.9g  {Nestle Shreddies
15g     {Bear Alpha Bites Cocoa (these three are all about the same)
15g     {Bear Alpha Bites Multigrain
21g     Rice Krispies Multigrain Shapes (another leap)
24g     Kellogg's Fruit & Fibre (a quarter sugar, really?)
36.3g  Sainsbury's Honey Nut Corn Flakes (so much sugar, how do they fit in any cornflakes?)

Once these boxes ran out, we rang the changes with some different options.

Pumpkins: better as book ends than breakfast

I stuck with the porridge and Basics version of Weetabix, but bought ordinary cornflakes instead of the honey nut version, which slashed the sugar content from 36.3g to 7.2g per 100g.

Turns out some supermarket own brand cereals have less sugar than the branded alternatives, so for example Sainsbury's Wholegrain Fruit & Fibre has 15% less sugar than the Kellogg's version, still high at 20.4g but less than 24g per 100g.

Doesn't always work though: Sainsbury's Wholegrain Malties have 16g sugar / 100g, very slightly more than Nestle Shreddies' 15g.

(And my daughter still snuck Nestle Cheerios into the trolley, with 20.9g sugar /100g. At least they were on offer at half price).

Maybe the moral of the tale is just that I shouldn't take my children shopping.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Gluten free, dairy free but still tastes like cake

Gluten-free, dairy-free Victoria sponge that still tastes like actual cake

Much as I like fruit salad, it doesn't really cut is as an indulgent pudding.

Last weekend when some friends with assorted dietary requirements came for lunch, I was casting around for ideas for a dairy-free, gluten-free, wheat-free menu with no onions, mushrooms, garlic and possibly red meat. Oh, and it also had to be child-friendly.

The main meal wasn't too much of a problem - roast chicken with lemon and herbs (hold the garlic), jacket potatoes with optional butter plus some green beans and carrots. I even managed to liven up the beans with thin strips of orange zest, toasted walnuts and walnut oil. All fine and dandy.

But a pudding?  Usually I cope with mass catering by chucking together a cheesecake, chocolate brownies or some kind of crumble, which might just as well be a fiesta of dairy and wheat products sponsored by their respective marketing boards. And that's before addeding lashings of ice cream, which in my humble opinion improves almost all puddings no end.

One guest mentioned meringues, but I am resigned to the fact that meringues are out of the question with our elderly Aga. Long slow cooking at a low heat is impossible with a top oven roughly as hot as hell, and a bottom oven so cool it can't even be bothered to warm things. I did attempt cooking meringues once. I left them in overnight, and the egg whites oozed out with boredom.

Fruit salad seemed too spartan, but neither was I particularly up for some exotic combination based on blended avocadoes and added dates.

Anyway I bought a couple of punnets of raspberries and thought I'd cracked it with a gluten-free Victoria sponge recipe I've done in the past.

No problem, I thought. Instead of butter I can use Stork in a packet, which is dairy-free unlike Stork in a tub. Instead of normal flour, I can use the bag of Dove's flour lurking at the back of my cupboard, which is gluten-free and wheat-free. I have a tub of Dr Oetker gluten-free baking powder anyway. Simple pudding, no faff, won't scare the horses (or the children).

Unfortunately I only found out on the morning itself that my tried and tested gluten-free sponge recipe involves milk, and my tried and tested dairy-free sponge recipe involves wheat flour. Oops.

Everything I've read about gluten-free cooking is quite fierce about following the recipe exactly and not messing around with quantities or substitute ingredients. There are dire warnings about ending up with a dry biscuit rather than a beautifully risen cake.

The alternative recipes produced by frantic Googling involved ingredients like xanthum gum, soya milk or rice milk, which I don't own and had no desire to buy.

But finally, I found that I could use some of the coconut milk I keep for curries instead of normal milk, and the recipes promised that the taste would disappear during baking, so my children might actually eat it too.

So here is a recipe for dairy-free, gluten-free Victoria sponge, which actually tastes like cake and didn't involve investing in a whole cupboard of ingredients I will never use again.

And I still served it with ice cream, for those who could eat it.

Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free Victoria Sponge


150g / 6oz Stork (in the packet that looks like butter, not a tub)
150g / 6oz caster sugar
2 drops vanilla essence
2 eggs
1 teaspoon gluten-free baking powder (Dr Oetker version is widely available)
150g / 6oz Dove's Farm gluten-free plain white flour blend
 3 tablespoons coconut milk, but hey if you have soya or rice milk handy, go for those.
4 tablespoons jam
1 tablespoon icing sugar


Preheat the oven to 190 C / 170 C fan / Gas Mark 5.
Grease two 20cm / 8 inch round baking tins, and line the bottom with circles of baking paper.
Cream together the butter, sugar and vanilla until light and fluffy
Beat in the eggs one at a time, adding a tablespoon of flour with each.
Then mix in the rest of the flour, baking powder and milk. It should end up a bit sloppy.
Divide the mix between the two baking tins.
(If you have a 2 oven Aga, this is the point when you put the cake tins on the lowest grid shelf and start wrestling with a cold shelf about half way up)
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, remove from the oven and leave for a few minutes.
Run a knife round between the side of the tin and the edge of the cake, to try and ensure it will come out smoothly.
Hold a clean tea towel over the top of the cake, turn the whole lot upside down while holding the tea towel in place, so the cake falls out onto the tea towel, peel off the baking paper and then tip the cake out onto a cooling rack. Turn out the second sponge too.
Then heat the jam in a pan so it melts a bit and becomes runnier.
Spoon the jam onto one of the sponges, and spread it around generously.
Put the other sponge on top, and use a sieve or tea strainer to sift the icing sugar on top of that.
Stand back and admire your cake before everyone else eats it.

Cake close up.

Nope still not sponsored by Stork, Dr Oetker or even Dove's Farm, just use them all in my cooking.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Favourite photos from our garden

Carpet of snowdrops in early March

This evening I headed off into Hadleigh for a lecture on garden photography at the gardening club (second Monday of every month, in the Guildhall).

I only joined last month, kindly whisked off by our neighbours at the bottom of the garden.
As committee stalwarts they are keen to attract new members, and I suspect they'd also like to share the burden of my weed/not weed questions. Meanwhile I am keen on tea and biscuits and happy to learn about gardening, so its a win win situation all round.

Anyway the talk at the last meeting was by a bonsai enthusiast who rarely paused for breath.
The high point was when she set about a shrub with secateurs and a running commentary, and revealed its inner tree right in front of our very eyes.

I fear I will never develop the dedication needed to cultivate bonsai. Any plant that requires watering twice a day hasn't a hope in my hands.

However, I do have a camera and love snapping away in the garden, so tonight's talk by Clare Dawson on photography was of particular interest. Before leaving I had a flick through the photos I've taken in our garden so far this year.

I meant to post some pics before the talk, and before I'd been overawed by the slide show, but ran out of time saying "aaaah" over picures of roses.

However I managed to hold my nerve (just) and here are my favourites so far this year. I intended to post a top 10, and then got carried away, so brace yourself for a top 20.

The photo at the top of this post shows the snowdrops which were the first flowers in our garden earlier this year. Watching different bulbs appear over the weeks has been one of the joys of moving to a new house.

Cherry blossom over the top of the garden wall

The cherry trees looked incredibly beautiful in April, covered with clouds of the palest pink flowers.


This is the quince that wasn't. I was utterly convinced it was a quince tree, based on the flowers and bulbous yellow fruit last year, but when Andy-the-Gardener came to hack back all the climbing plants he assured me it is actually japonica. It is utterly beautiful and in quite the wrong place in the garden, desperately reaching up and over a wall in search of the sun.

Snake's head fritillary and primroses

Moving into mid April, the primroses and delicate purple fritallaries were out.

Bluebells and wild strawberries

Some of the bluebells survived into May, surrounded by a surge of wild strawberries, with their sprinkling of tiny white flowers.

Mystery white bulbs

We also had loads and loads of these little white bulbs, which closed up every evening, and only opened in the sunshine towards the middle of the day.


By mid May, the cornflowers were in full flower from wonderful buds like miniature pineapples. This bed had a haze of forget-me-nots behind them.


I love irises, and am so glad we have some in the garden. This photo was taken towards the end of May, when the wisteria in the background had recovered enough from drastic pruning to start flowering.

Alliums, japanese maple and lilac

If you look really closely at the left hand side of the photo with the irises, you might just make out the lilac bush which appears above. I loved the contrast between the purple pom poms of the alliums, the tracery of the japanese maple leaves, and the explosion of lilac in the background.

After the rain

One visitor and enthusiastic gardener did tell me the name of this plant, but as I couldn't pronounce or spell it, I promptly forgot.
Whatever it's name, I love the architectural spikiness of its leaves, and the way the light caught the raindrops after a storm in June.

Lavender in the morning light

The Hidcote lavender bushes were only planted just after Easter, but by the end of June they were in full flower.

Rose by the back garden wall

By the middle of June, the garden was a riot of roses of all sizes, shapes and varieties. This rose climbs up in a corner of the back wall.

Climbing rose in the front garden

This gorgeously deep red rose climbs high above the front garden, tangled in amongst the trees.

Roses over the top of the trellis

These roses are from the great big bush, bang in the middle of the back garden wall, and reach up above the wooden trellis.

Wild strawberries

Here are the wild strawberries again, this time covered in fruit towards the end of June.

Vine growing up the kitchen wall...and over the window...

This photo is actually taken inside the house, looking out. The grape vine that grows up the kitchen wall is hell bent on world domination. It had already been pruned in March, and had to be cut back again at the end of July so the rotting window frame could be repaired and painted.
If only the grapes grew big enough to ripen properly.

Echinops and bees

Thanks to everyone who let me know that these purple flowers are actually Echinops, when I posted the photo back in July. I still love it almost as much as the bees do.

A very hungry caterpillar

One of the few things I actually planted was some climbing nasturtiums, in the hope they would scramble up the trellis by the bins, look cheerful and shield the oil tank. A hoard of extremely hungry caterpillars did their best to foil my plans, by chowing down on the leaves with great enthusiasm.

Spider's web

Aside from the caterpillars, we also seem to have a very healthy spider population. I loved this spider web caught in the morning light, with the delicate tracery shimmering with dew.

Last roses

Finally these are the of the roses, which just survived into October, but dropped before I had the chance to enter a specimen in tonight's gardening club competition. Robbed, I tell you, robbed.

If you did get the chance to look at Clare Dawson's professional flower and garden photographs, they are amazing. Examples of flower still lives, taken with a Hasselblad through suspended sheets of glass, here:
and more recent garden photography, as featured in Suffolk magazine, here:

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Bake Off withdrawal symptoms and soda bread

Inspired to attempt soda bread rolls.

The Great British Bake Off is a big event in our house, so along with 14.7 million others, Wednesday's final was a source of great excitement.

We squash onto the sofa to watch every installment, worry about timing, sympathise with mistakes, gasp at amazing showstoppers and shout at the screen if we disagree with the judging.

Apart from learning a lot about baking, I think part of the appeal of the Bake Off is the sheer niceness of the contestants. They actually help each other, and support rather than sabotage the other competitors.

During the series, my son wanted "the fireman" to win (Mat), my daughter was rooting for "the young one" (Flora), and my husband was amused by Nadiya's facial expressions.
However we all thought Nadiya, Ian and Tamal were worthy finalists, and were delighted when Nadiya won.

Who knew baking could be quite so emotional? Ian cried, Nadiya cried, Tamal cried, May Berry stifled a sob and my daughter kept wiping my cheeks convinced I was crying into the cushions. The next morning my Facebook feed was full of weeping watchers.

I thought Nadiya's amazing acceptance speech was the real tear-jerker:

I'm never going to put boundaries on myself ever again. 
I'm never going to say I can't do it.
I'm never going to say 'maybe'.
I'm never going to say 'I don't think I can'.
I can and I will.

Much as I love cooking, many of the recipes on the Great British Bake Off are way beyond anything I could ever attempt.

My favourite home-cooked cakes avoid any icing at all, let alone the intricacies of piping bags, weird types of meringue and terrifying trickery with molten sugar.

However, sometimes the series does inspire me to have a go at something I haven't tried before.
So the morning after the Bake Off final, with Nadiya's words ringing in my ears, I got up early enough to make my first attempt at...

... soda bread.

OK, it might not reach the technical heights of raspberry mille-feuille with candy cane icing, but it was slightly more suitable for my husband's packed lunch (we'd run out of bread the night before, and I was reluctant to nip down to the Co-op in case I missed Bake Off...).

Small steps, people,small steps.

I used Jack Monroe's recipe for "Airy Fairy Easy Peasy Soda Bread", which also features in her budget recipe book "A Girl Called Jack".

The recipe is super simple, adding a couple of teaspoons of lemon juice to 200ml milk while you measure out 200g self-raising flour and a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda, before mixing it all into a dough and bunging it in the oven.
I lost my nerve about whether then lemon juice was turning the milk sour, and added an extra teaspoon, which I wouldn't recommend. However the tip in Jack's book about splitting the dough into eight pieces, to make rolls which would cook quicker, worked well.

The soda bread rolls were fun. They tasted a bit like scones, but not really, and I can imagine the children enjoying cooking them in future.

My husband ate them with stilton and red onion chutney, and the kids liked them best with butter and jam.

I enjoyed mine with soft cheese and soup, to counter my withdrawal symptoms from the Great British Bake Off.
So there you go. I can and I will...make soda bread. Roll on next year's series.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Warmth from the wood burner

Newly installed woodburning stove

Since moving to Suffolk, once of the things we have actually managed to do is install a wood burning stove.

Many cheers!

Now the weather is turning colder, I really appreciate sinking back into the sofa in the evening, and basking in the warmth from the fire. Much as I love our house, it doesn't lack for draughts.

We do have other working fireplaces, but somehow we only get round to lighting open fires on special occasions or when we have visitors. The wood burner however is easier to get going, and heats the room up more quickly, so we're much more likely to use it.

The photo above shows the wood burner just after it was installed back in February. As with many of our plans, it all took slightly longer than expected.

Turns out it's not as easy as saying "We want a wood burning stove, please fit one".

No, first you get a chimney sweep round (the lovely and very helpful Dean Bond) to sweep your chimneys, confirm they're not blocked up and talk sternly about the importance of bird guards on the chimney pots.

Then you get recommendations for local firms that fit wood burning stoves and have all the right HETAS registration and might actually be able to squeeze in an appointment for someone to come and quote.

The comedy moment arrives when the expert measures your room, sucks his teeth, and explains that because of the size of the stove needed, the regulations insist that he puts in an air brick to ensure adequate ventilation.

Then there is a short pause, while you and the engineer look round at the rattling sash windows, the wind whipping through the gaps between the floor boards and rushing through the open doorway with no door (which is a whole other story all to itself), and clock the fact that if the room wasn't so damn ventilated you wouldn't need a wood burning stove in the first place.

So when the next heating expert comes round, you ask if there's any alternative to punching holes through the elderly brickwork, because you're pretty sure the local heritage officer and Historic England aren't going to think much of that plan.

And  luckily the heating engineer works out that because there is a (draughty, cold) basement underneath with an existing air brick, he could instead cut a hole in one of the floorboards and fit a metal grille to comply with the regulations.

So then you make an appointment for the local heritage officer to come round and confirm that yes he's happy for the wood burner to be installed and the chimney lined, and yes he'd rather you fitted a metal grille in the floor boards instead of installing an air brick, and no you don't need listed building consent (which is an immense relief).

But then you have to actually choose a stove, which involves looking at glossy brochures with pictures of a myriad of stoves at even wider ranging prices, and asking for recommendations from the wood burning stove experts and people who already have them, and discussing the pros and cons of Nordic styling, fancy fretwork and how many flames you would actually see.

So you get competing quotes for the stove you quite fancy, but also need to allow for:
- installation
- vent kit
- chimney liner
- access platform or cherry picker so they can actually get up to the chimney and fit the liner
- chimney cap, plus a few extras ones because if they've got an access platform or cherry picker in place they might as well fit a few other missing chimney caps
- birdguard
- carbon monoxide detector
- thermometer and sweeping brush

This all adds up to the thick end of a few thousand pounds, so you take a deep breath and get through Christmas first.

And then you choose a firm, and get it all booked in, which of course involves some lead time because surprise surprise you're not the only people in January who'd be quite keen on having a warmer house.

Then you clear the room of assorted toys and chaos, just in case the chimney dumps enormous quantities of soot and dust during the installation, and finally FINALLY the lovely people from Bentley Fire Shop come round and fit your stove.

And your husband rushes out to buy a log basket, and unfeasibly long heat-proof gauntlets, and even shock horror some wood, and then ta dah you get to light the fire and enjoy the warmth.

And luckily, although your husband is slightly suspicious of central heating, it turns out he absolutely loves lighting the wood burner and will happily get it going whenever the weather is nippy.

Wood burner in action last week