Thursday, 27 February 2014

Apple Tart Maman Blanc

The other day I wrote a piece for The Daily Mail and as the paper arrived and I saw that I was on the front page (ack!) with some dastardly headline I felt ill and squeezed my eyes shut and clutched at my pyjamas and waited for the whole internet to fall in on my head all day long.

It didn't, thank god. Thank you. I mean, I'm sure there were 4,000 comments underneath the piece, all vile, but I don't read those - (you simply cannot and stay sane) - but I did get one, single, slightly unhappy tweet. "I used to love your blog," it said, "but now you just troll yourself. How much do the Mail pay you to write this stuff?"

And I realised then, that I should probably explain what happens. I lose track of how many readers I have, I forget that I'm not just writing to Becky B and my husband.

(Becky B's just had a baby by the way. No pain relief. None. There was briefly a story going round that she had her stitches with no pain killer either, but that turned out to be apocryphal, like that one about how she once put a mugger in hospital just by giving him a nasty look.)

But for other readers, seeing me in the Mail like that must be strange, like if your boyfriend suddenly turned out to be a contract killer, or a pimp.

So this is how is happens: one morning, some devastatingly charming girl emails from Femail, (they're all charming at the Mail, that's their deadly weapon), wanting to run a piece that you have already written and to give you, in return, enough money so that you don't have to work for the next two weeks if you don't want to, and pay the nanny AND buy a bottle of neon pink nail varnish from Models Own.

And you stop and you think "Oh but my photo will be in there, and some really horrifying headline and there will be pictures of my children…"and then you think "yes but this is my job." And then you think "money...". And then you think how pleased your mother always is when you're in the paper, no matter what you've said. And then your husband comes into the room and reads the email over your shoulder and goes "You're going to ask for more money, aren't you? Great job. Don't forget to invoice!"

Then you file your piece and wait. Presently the "edit" comes back to you, which is where they run your normal words through their computer and it comes out in perfect MailSpeak. And you go "fine - can you change this and this?" and they go "sure".

And then you deal once or twice more with women who, as the deadline gets closer and closer, sound more and more tense, as they sit at their desks, talking to you and eating their lunch at 8.30pm, tapping in tiny tweaks here and there - none of which matter because the headline is going to be MY KIDS ARE SO FACKIN BORING YAH???? so the subtle word changes you are insisting on are like dusting the rotary blades of a helicopter that's just crashed into the side of a mountain.

Then the paper comes out the next day and you feel crushed and sick until your husband goes "GREAT job!" and your mother, who quite often looks at you blankly like "which one are you, again?" actually rings up and says "They're talking about your piece on the radio!!!!!!" And then you remember: "money!". And, eventually, you square it all away and forget about it. Until the next time.

It helps that I am basically a sloppy hack at heart and don't really mind - not really, otherwise I wouldn't do it. If my children find these pieces later in life and want to have a go at me about it I will simply start charging them rent.

Another girl in my life who doesn't judge me for this kind of caper is a French girl called Amelie, once described to me as the "rudest girl in London" but I don't understand why, because she is simply charming, she is just a bit brisk and French. I think she is terrific.

We went to see her and her husband this weekend for lunch and Amelie calmly went out to the shops to buy some ingredients for Raymond Blanc's much-celebrated Apple tart Maman Blanc and made it while guests were arriving. She had never made it before! And, she declared "I 'aven't cooked anysing for years." I cannot imagine how relaxed you have to be to do something like this.

Anyway it was just fantastic. I didn't help in the actual preparation, I just provided moral support and read out the recipe as she was cooking, which she declared was very helpful but I think she may just have been being nice.

This is how it goes: the precise recipe, including instructions for the shortcrust pastry, can be found on p246 of Kitchen Secrets, or online.

Amelie, like all good French girls, just buys her pastry pre-made. I think she used puff (she herself couldn't remember if she had bought puff or shortcrust - such insouciance!!!) but you really ought to buy shortcrust.

So here we go:

Apple tart 'Maman Blanc'

1 packet shortcrust pastry
3 dessert apples (like a Braeburn or whatever, just not a super-sour cooking apple)
15g unsalted butter
15g caster sugar
11/2 tsp lemon juice
7g Calvados (if you like)
icing sugar, to dust
1 medium egg
100 ml whipping cream
50g caster sugar

1 Roll out your pastry to fit your tart case and have it slightly higher than the rim of the tin because pastry shrinks on cooking. Prick the base with a fork and put in the fridge for 20 min.

2 Preheat the oven and a baking sheet (or any old tin big enough to take the tart tin) to 220C

3 Peel and core the apples and cut each into 10. Lay them closely together and overlapping in a circle in the base of the tart case.

4 In a small pan, melt the butter and sugar, then take off the heat and mix in the lemon juice and Calvados if using. Brush this over the apples slices and dust with icing sugar.

5 Slide the tart tin onto your now hot sheet and cook for 10 minutes. Turn the oven down to 200C and bake for another 20 minutes until the tart case is brown and the apples look a bit caramelised.

6 For the custard filling, whisk 1 egg together with 50g caster sugar and 100ml whipping cream and pour into the tart 10 minutes before the end of the cooking time.

Et Voila! As Amelie almost never says.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Kale chips

I am very slightly ashamed of how obsessive I was about weight gain and loss during and after both my pregnancies.

When I say obsessive during my pregnancy, I mean I just fretted in my head a lot about how fat I was - I didn't NOT eat just exactly whatever the hell I fancied. I mean, there was nothing I wouldn't eat. The second time round I made concessions to not putting on three stone by switching to Diet Coke and not having pudding with every meal … but I still put on three stone.

And when I say obsessive about my weight after pregnancy I mean obsessed with regaining some approximation of my pre-pregnancy state. And if possible, beyond that, plummeting to under nine stone in weight (this is an impossible dream). Obsessed, I ought to say, up to the point of actually doing any exercise.

Having said that, it's an easy trap to fall into, once you reckon you are done with babies, to go a bit scrawny. To go Full Thin. So traumatising is it being so fat and ungainly that you almost attempt to scrub out the very memory of the fatness by getting far too thin, only for your husband to leave you for a chubby barmaid just at the point that you look genuinely terrific in a pair of leather trousers. (Which by now you must wear all the time, even in June, because you are stick-like and freezing.)

I say I feel ashamed because it all basically comes off in the end - unless you are really bloody unlucky, or just really not trying at all - but I feel like rather than obsessing about getting back into a - any! - pair of jeans I ought to have been bonding like crazy with  my babies. We did bond, I think. Kitty vaguely knows who I am and Sam says "Mumum" when he sees me. Fine. But still, my impatience is a bit embarrassing. It's just a bit vain.

Anyway I can relax now and spend the next forever getting even thinner being totally focused on my children because I am back within a whisker of my pre-baby weight, although not quite my pre-baby shape.

There is a ghastly thing that happens when you have a baby where your hips widen - literally the bones actually widen - and take a while to settle back to their normal circumference, so you can be back to your old weight but still not fit into your old jeans.

But I have achieved a sudden accelerated weight loss by hitting on the importance of lunch in my day. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I have had to eat in order to lose weight.

I hate lunch. I always have. I find it tedious and boring and I don't like lunch options. So normally I skip it, but then come 3.30pm I am so starving I can't concentrate and then I start snacking heavily on very sugary stuff, which isn't going to make anyone a supermodel, you feel me?

But lunch is a bore. And it makes a bloody great mess, which I always want to avoid as it feels like I cook and clear up about 15 meals a day as it is. I have all this food and this enormous, stacked kitchen, and yet I'm just not eating lunch. It wasn't happening.

So I thought to myself "What would Anna Bateson do?" Anna Bateson is a very successful friend, initially of my husband's but I suppose also of mine, now - how do those things work? - who does something important at YouTube and has two children very close in age and everyone goes round going "OMG Anna Bateson".

When she is in this country, (which isn't often), I openly mine her for information and go "What kind of handbag do you have? Who is your nanny? Where are you going on holiday this year? How did you potty-train D-? Which internet shopping outlet do you favour? Where are those jeans from?" just because I think she has the answers. She quite often does, it's totally apt that she works at an internet company. She's a one-woman search engine.

Anyway so I thought to myself "What would Anna Bateson do?" and the answer was: OUTSOURCE. Anna would outsource lunch. She would go "Yes, buying a healthy, delicious lunch every day is more expensive than making it at home, but if it will persuade you to eat lunch, which in turn will make you thinner, it is cheaper than a gym membership." She would calmly show you a brief PowerPoint presentation about it and then leave to catch a plane.

So now I either go early to fetch Kitty from nursery and stop at a Vietnamese cafe on the way for some grilled chicken and cous cous or I buy myself a salad from Pret in the morning if running errands. Failing that I FORCE myself to eat baked beans on sourdough. Then I have a cup of tea and 1 (one) biscuit and that's it until dinner.

It still being winter-ish and both my husband and I on our eternal, possibly terminal, quest to weigh 3 stone apiece, we are always looking for new things to do with wretched kale and someone suggested kale chips, which turn out to be very easy and very delicious (when covered with a lot of salt and brown sugar). They taste a lot like what we always used to call crispy seaweed in Chinese restaurants and it is basically the only thing approaching "tasty" that you can do with kale.

It's very simple, what you do is pre-heat your oven to 180C and shake out some kale on a large baking sheet. Snip up the bigger pieces with scissors and then sprinkle with brown soft sugar and some sea salt. Bake for about 25 mins checking occasionally to make sure they're not burnt.

Eat as a pre-dinner snack with, err, sherry? Or a Diet Coke if you really mean this.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Recipe Rifle goes shopping: Spring fashion

A thing my dad has taught me is that you have to modernise - or die.

It's probably the only thing he has taught me by example - everything else i.e. the importance of a neat filing system, up-to-date insurance, legible handwriting, the causes and course of the First World War, he taught via a series of 40-minute lectures using white boards, diagrams, bright lights, water-boarding etc.

But modernising, that's just what he did. He never said "You have to modernise OR DIE!"

He did it instinctively. He had a computer before anyone else, he mastered email before anyone else, he wore with flair and enthusiasm a pair of Converse trainers I bought for him about five years ago (I get him a new pair every year for his birthday). He listens to podcasts and has an iPod. Every few years he will change the style of his spectacles and he is sometimes seen with a new tie. His texting is not perfect, but it's getting there. He keeps up to date on pretty much everything except the most absolutely current popular music, though he will definitely know who (or what) One Direction are (or is. Or, shortly, were.)

My father is 79, ladies and gents. Seventy Nine. Not some Disco Dad who accidentally became a parent at 18. SEVENTY NINE. I was born when he was 44. He remembers the war! But he could also pick Harry Styles out of a crowd. Maybe. I don't think he likes modernising much, I think he finds it as painful as everyone else does, but he knows that you have to move on.

Whenever I catch myself about to say something awful and Tunbridge Wells about Instagram or SnapChat or, indeed, One Direction, I think of my dad. What would he say? He would know about it all. He would not pooh-pooh a modern thing for pooh-poohing's sake. Because he knows that has the stench of death about it. And my father is not afraid of the tax man, or drunks and lunatics or answering the door after 9pm or changing lanes in heavy traffic: but he is afraid of death.

I always think of my very nearly Octogenarian father when I consider, with some horror, that I must Update My Wardrobe. It's the thing I like doing least, because it means buying a pair of jeans that I will consider hideous for six months, of feeling self-conscious when out of the house, having to spend money on things that I'm not sure I like.

But I must Update My Wardrobe because if you don't, you just look dreadful. If you don't make incremental changes then you will still, come Spring/Summer 2014, be wearing a pair of grey skinny jeans (I bought mine in 2005) with a Breton top and a leaky pair of Converse. This is fine if you really, really properly don't care, or really, really properly can't afford it but for the rest of us, looking out of date suggests a deeper resistance to change, to modernisation. It speaks of a deeper stubbornness, an arrogance, a closed mind.

I once went to a lecture given by the agony aunt Irma Kurtz in which she claimed to stave off old age by trying to "change her opinion about things". Sticking to your trusty old shapes and colours is as bad as declaring the same old boring allegiances to the thoughts and opinions you had when you were 25.

Not that I like to over-think these things.

So I have been utilising my new paycheques to Update My Wardrobe and it hasn't gone too badly. Apart from the Boyfriend Jeans, which I am in love with and totally and completely horrified by in equal measure, it has been reasonably painless.

Here are the things I have bought, which I plan to wear when the weather cheers up. It's not much, because it is all expensive as I have finally paid heed to my own advice of buying a few expensive things, not a lot of old shit from the High Street. Though I must point out here that I never, ever wear any of this gear while attempting childcare.

For childcare I buy a job lot of H&M sweatshirts and black 3/4 length leggings from TopShop, which get totally trashed, sent to charity for rags and then replaced. There's nothing quite so nice as a lovely fresh pair of leggings.

I bought ALL of this stash with my very own pennies, that's how much I love it all.

1 McQ Cross-printed sweatshirt, £165 available only online at This is navy, although it looks black here. Goes with everything, excellent for anything smart/casual on the weekend.

2 Green crepe swing top, Michael Kors, £140, from Net A Porter. I love this. Hides the mid-section, great colour.

 3 Acne Boyfriend jeans, £190 I am scared of these but they are, also, SO FACKIN COOL.

4 Longline layering shirt grey/chambray, £98 from ME +EM.

I used to love wearing shirts, but the way I used to wear them, just cotton, with the top few buttons undone over jeans or whatever, looks horrible and wrong these days for some reason. I wear this buttoned to the top and it feels sleek and nice because of the jersey top-half and the cotton bottom half doesn't cling to my last remaining stubborn baby weight. Also, if you want to wear this under a sweater, there's no cotton top-bit to bunch up and make you look like a man. I am a size 12 and got this in an M.

5 Navy v-neck "swing" jumper, Me+Em £98 in an S to fit a size 12. 

Another favourite thing of mine, the v-neck navy sweater. I will probably be buried in one, but can't find one that doesn't cling horribly to my mid-section. It's a common thing, I find, with anyone who was even last pregnant 15 years ago and is now a size 6 - wearing anything tight around your middle makes you feel like you're being strangled. But this ME+EM sweater is terrific - a lot of their clothes have a lovely, very forgiving and super-comfortable "swing" to them. 

6 Hold fast signet ring, £140, LauraLee. I rang the shop and a nice girl had this made for me in a special weeny size to go on the little finger in a kind of witty mock posh/butch way but with the unassailable message printed thereon: HOLD FAST. It's a nautical term, as Captain Jack Sparrow would say, which roughly translates as "hang on to something and shut your eyes until it's all over".

7 Silver Birkenstocks, £39, Natural Footwear Company - or cheaper on Amazon probably but I couldn't work out the shoe sizes and happened to be passing this shoe shop while on my way to the London Transport Museum with Kitty anyway.

The "ugly" shoe is IN this spring/summer (I may be making this up) and I am absolutely thrilled about it. I plan to wear these with my terrifying boyfriend jeans, a neon sweatshirt and a pedicure


More food soon