Chocolate Fudge Cake


This week, as well as eating oysters, making chocolate cake and cursing Jamie Oliver, I’ve also learnt how to breathe properly. It’s amazing what you can squeeze into a week.

Saturday morning, I drop Daisy in town at her drama group and walk up the hill to do some food shopping, except I never make it to Tesco’s, finding myself instead at The Rub AGAIN. It’s a place where you can walk in off the street and have a 10, 20 or 30 minute back massage in one of their chairs. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a cure for all ills and I’m a little bit addicted. Can’t sleep? Got neck-ache? Been hunched over a computer or carrying children too much? A trip to The Rub will solve it all.

Within seconds I’ve got my coat and scarf off and am leaning forward in one of their chairs, instantly relaxed. The silence is broken by the masseur.

“You’re very tense.” ( Yep, that’s why I’m here)

“It’s because you’re not breathing properly.”

I roll my eyes in the head rest. What does that mean? I’ve been breathing like this for thirty seven and a half years; it’s involuntary, isn’t it? I’m half-listening as he tells me I need to breathe more deeply, allowing my stomach to expand, and letting my breath out more slowly.

I return to pick up Daisy an hour later. As we walk up Lower Goat Lane, I remind her of today’s challenge: to buy her a winter coat. This is not a task she is keen on. She puts up an argument to keep wearing the white fur coat that she got from a car boot sale three years ago.

“Daisy, it doesn’t fit you.”

“Yes it does. It’s just like a jacket now.”

“But it’s not waterproof.”

“I’ll use an umbrella.”

Instead of losing my rag and getting tense, I breathe my way through the argument, just like the man told me to.This turns out to be massively in Daisy’s favour because by the time we’ve reached the market I find myself saying,

“Ok then. Forget the coat. Shall we go for a hot chocolate instead?”

We stand in a long queue at our usual stall (where there would be no change from a fiver for two drinks) but it’s cold and we head further into the market until we find a woman with a big metal teapot advertising milky coffee for 70p. Daisy gets a hot chocolate and I get a cuppa and it comes to the grand total of £1.30! We laugh (money for a cone of chips!) and promise to go back there every week.

We sit in the memorial gardens below City Hall and I let Daisy throw chips to the pigeons, even though it’s strictly forbidden, and give her a simplistic explanation on why there’s going to be a march through the city against mental health cuts. (The current government don’t come out of it very well). It’s all very enjoyable and I think: there might be something in this breathing malarky.

Then three days later the cold weather really comes and I begin to doubt myself. It’s so cold that when Tom goes down to shut up the chicken coop, he finds Ruby, Pearl, Betty and Maria snow-covered, sheltering next to the coop. The cold seems to have frozen their brains and I have to help lift them into the coop because they’ve forgotten what to do.

I fret all night that they won’t make it to the morning, and Ollie and I return at dawn with a pan of porridge to warm their little bodies. Ollie uses a stick to break up their iced-over water while I watch with relief as they peck away at the porridge, steam rising from the pan in the semi-dark. They must surely be the only chickens feasting on gluten-free porridge made with coconut milk, I think.

We walk to school and Daisy complains bitterly about how cold she is (in her too-small coat!) The irony is not lost on me, but I breathe my way through it and even offer her my scarf and gloves. I’m like a new person!

Unfortunately, the breathing doesn’t work in all situations. That evening we return from school with Daisy’s friend, Edie, for half-birthday celebrations. The girls dress up and laugh raucously as they pretend they are married to people called Bob and Nigel, while I stress away in the kitchen. I’ve promised decorate-your-own pizza and chocolate cake (on Daisy’s orders) but the local shop was out of packet dough mixes so here I am, massively behind schedule, trying to follow a Jamie Oliver recipe. Abandon the bowl, he says, sieve the flour straight onto the work surface, he says.

The bowl has a papier mache head drying in it (a drama prop in the making), so I am happy to follow J’oliver’s orders. I make a well in the flour and pour the yeasty liquid into it, and guess what happens?  Yep, it floods over and oozes out, quickly surrounding the kettle and running in ravines off the work surface and down the front of the drawers.

“Ollie!” I shout, “I need you!”

I shout so loudly that he actually hears me over the top of Octonauts and comes running.

“Oh mum!” he says, “What’s all that yellow stuff all over the floor?”

I hadn’t noticed the big puddle by my feet.

“Ruddy Jamie Oliver,” I mutter to myself.

“That’s rude, mum,” reprimands Ollie.

“It’s ok, he can’t hear me.” I say.

“He can if he’s dead.” replies Ollie, darkly.

I am still imagining an omipresent Jamie Oliver, who sees all my cooking disasters, while I set Ollie to work on the half-birthday cake. It literally is a half-birthday cake because the other half comes out with me that evening for my friend, Pippa’s,  birthday.

“I don’t have time to make a cake and do pizza, so you’ll have to do the cake.” I instruct Ollie.

He obediently puts on a apron and stands at the hob stirring a pan of sugar and chocolate. I get caught up sorting the pizza disaster and forget he’s only five and can’t read recipes.

“This doesn’t look right, mum,” he quietly informs me.

No it doesn’t. I’ve made this recipe many times and yet in my pizza frenzy I put chocolate in the pan instead of evaporated milk and it’s all starting to burn. I’m glad someone is on the ball.

Once he’s made the chocolate fudge icing (and licked every utensil used in its making), I start him on the food processor. Before I know it, he’s made the cake AND quietly iced it, raspberries and all. I don’t know where he gets his breathing techniques from but I could definitely do with some of his kitchen-calm.



This classic Delia cake has been a favourite of mine since the days of childhood sleepovers. Someone, I don’t know who, would always bring one along, and I loved the fudge icing so much (a mixture of boiled up evaporated milk and dark chocolate) that Delia’s Classic Cookery Book was the first recipe book I ever owned.











Salad Jars


It is the season of detoxing and decluttering. I’m overwhelmed by all the post-Christmas STUFF everywhere so I decide to ruin Sunday afternoon by insisting that everyone must get rid of twenty items.

“If you don’t use it or it doesn’t bring you joy, it has to go!” I order.

This is met with wails and sobs from the younger members of the family. Daisy insists that all fourteen of her handbags bring her joy, even though she doesn’t use any of them, so she wants to keep the lot.

Ollie cries if I as much as suggest he might want to remove anything from his room; and Tom is strangely absent, deciding instead that now is the time to focus on the washing up which has been sitting there all day.

It’s a one-woman campaign but I keep my mother in law in mind (she’s the queen of decluttering) and after three hours we have a car packed with charity stuff and a full wheelie bin.

Bedtime can’t come round quick enough (arguing with your offspring is very exhausting). Once we have got through the farce of putting the children to bed (Ollie now has to have his blanket anointed with lavender oil before he’ll even consider sleep), I’m excited about the prospect of watching the penultimate Bridge.

I’m on a self-imposed internet detox after throwing my phone on the bathroom floor when half-asleep and breaking it. I am now operating an ancient Nokia and completely loving the lack of World Wide Web access. I’ve started reading again and broken the obsessive habit of checking my phone every time I’m in a queue / waiting in the playground/ have a moment to myself. It’s wonderful, BUT that doesn’t mean I want to give up the telly.

I come downstairs to find Tom reading on the sofa. This is an unusual sight. I look nervously from him to the television. The room is silent.

“Shall we read tonight?” he asks.

This is not how our evenings normally pan out. They usually involve murder and sub-titles and a lot of chocolate. In fact our evenings have never involved sitting in silence together. In the early years it was two bottles of wine for a fiver from Le Chateau (paid for on my cheque book); the post-student days were either pub or property programmes on TV; and the baby years were spent rocking colicky babies between the hours of 7 and 11 or obsessively going upstairs and checking they were still breathing . Definitely no reading together.

Tom breaks the awkward silence by announcing that he will be adding to our decluttered, detoxed January lives by taking up exercise. Getting up at 6am every morning and going running, to be precise.

This takes me by surprise, plus I am still reeling from the prospect of not watching The Bridge tonight. As a result I start to say things I will later regret.

“Oh exercise!  Great idea! I’m a 100% behind that……I tell you what, every time you get up and go running before work, I’ll get up with you and make you a healthy lunch to take to work”……

Once spoken, the words can not be clawed back and it is for that reason that I find myself foregoing my fix of Swedish crime, and putting these salads together instead. The prospect of getting up whilst it is still pitch-black is too awful; I’d prefer to do the hard work now.


Once I’ve sourced the jars from the shed, I make an ‘English’ salad for Tom with roast beef, pearl barley and beetroot; an Italian pasta salad for Daisy and a made up Mexican salad for me with rice, black beans, tomatoes and avocados.

The first two are taken from Jamie Oliver’s new book, Everyday Super Foods .

These jars of salad are a labour of love but leave you with a smug feeling and an extra half an hour in bed the next morning. Tom is very appreciative but wants to know if he’ll have to take a big bowl to work to accompany the heavy 1kg glass jar. Daisy is equally enthusiastic in the morning, but comes out of school looking embarrassed.

“It was disgusting, mum,” she whispers, “can I just go back to cheese sandwiches tomorrow?”

Apparently everything got a bit too soggy. I don’t know what these people on the forums are talking about when they say they make up FIVE such salads to last them for five days’ of lunches. What lettuce is going to survive that?

I get more positive feedback from Tom who says the flavours were delicious but there was enough in that jar to feed the whole office. On balance, next time Tom goes running, I’ll be handing him a fiver from my warm place in bed so he can get his own lunch from Waitrose.









Vietnamese Banquet

31st December 2015

New Year’s Eve for fourteen. Ollie in waistcoat runs his own bar from behind the drinks’ trolley. Coconuts with holes drilled in for straws, balanced in tea cups. Colourful beakers of homemade smoothie next to a huge carton of Um Bongo. Tom stands in the frying station, aka the shed, cooking crab crisp parcels in our new toy, the deep fat fryer. The place smells like a chip shop. A huge belly of pork slow roasts in the oven unaware of the angst it is causing the party’s hosts. Has the fat rendered down? Will the crackling crackle? Will it be an improvement on the last unappetising attempt?

I find myself washing bamboo leaves at the kitchen sink. All in the name of presentation. Unsure what to do, I stack them vertically like plates on the dryer. Too late I realise the child-guests might not be up for the Vietnamese cuisine. Scampi goujons are dug out of the freezer and, er, a par-baked baguette (strong French influence in Vietnam, didn’t you know?). They are hastily served with carrot sticks, some salted nuts from the coffee table and pineapple pieces grabbed from Ollie’s cocktail trolley. The kids look confused; I feel slightly hysterical. Fortunately, Anna (6) has brought her own lunch box. I think she’s learnt from previous experience.

We eat Hanoi crisp parcels (cha gio) and prawn summer rolls (goi cuon) dipped in glass bowls of nuoc cham dipping sauce, followed by slabs of roasted belly of pork with papaya salad. The green papaya cost £9 off the market. I hope everyone appreciates it and hasn’t mistaken it for a courgette. It’s dusk by the time we’ve finished eating but we force everyone out of the house for a jaunt to the park. By the time we get to the playground it’s too dark to recognise the person next to me and I worry that the park keeper will have locked us in. The kids though, are having the time of their lives, charging around.

Tom and I lead the way home and slap each other on the back in congratulations. The first two courses have been alright, despite the angst. We may have spoken too soon though. There’s still the as-yet-not-been-tested banana fritter recipe to come. Tom changes the oil on the fryer (a laborious task), while I flatten bananitos (dwarf bananas) with a palate knife and look up a suitable recipe on the iPad. This is not what you should be doing when you’ve got twelve people waiting expectantly in the dining room; pots of ice cream beginning to melt on the table.

Best-Man-Ben can sense the marital culinary tension and joins us in the shed, grin on face, drink in hand, while we bicker over the best way to lower a banana into a fryer without all the batter sliding off. The results are unsatisfactory. The rice flour makes the batter so white that the fritters come out looking anaemic and unappetising. Just as Tom decides to try dropping a bananito in from a greater height, I step closer to peer into the fryer. Oil splashes up into my face in a scene reminiscent of something out of Casualty. I cry out and clutch my face; fortunately my big glasses have taken the brunt of it. We decide to serve the fritters as they are.

The kids look disappointed as pudding is put down in from of them. A long wait for this? Most of them sidle over to the cake tin which contains Helen’s alternative chocolate brownie dessert. Actually, the fritters taste ok and if the children had been blindfolded, I think they might have enjoyed them. I go around the kids’ table and polish off their leftovers.

After everyone leaves, Daisy launches straight into an argument about staying up till midnight. I’ve had a great day but I’d now like to sit down without a child in sight. She is persistent and after much debate we agree on a 9.30pm bedtime. It is with surprise then, that I find three glasses clinking together when Big Ben strikes midnight. I look down to find Daisy on the sofa between Tom and I.

“Mmmm. Very nice!” She says as she knocks back her first ever mouthful of champagne.”Very nice indeed. Now can we turn back to Call The Midwife so I can see the end of the episode, please?”

New Year’s Day, 2016

So it would appear that the blog is back again. So sorry for the rather long absence!  I thought it was all over (writing-wise) but then suddenly there it was back on my New Year’s Resolutions list along with making my own bread, growing my own vegetables and wearing matching underwear. Exactly the same unachieved list as last year.

2016’s blog won’t be a daily occurrence; as unforgettable as those 111 daily blog posts were last year, I want to have the steam to keep going for the whole year so I’m aiming for a weekly update.

Thanks to those who have encouraged me to start it up again, especially my mother who offered to lock me in a room until I actually put pen to paper.

Finally, it just remains for me to say that our New Year’s Eve Vietnamese menu was a complete copy of one of the best meals we have ever eaten. Our great friend, Neil, and his culinary partner, Jaki Jak inspired us at their supper club, Papaya Verte, at The Rosebery in Norwich in November.

I also had the great privilege of attending a Vietnamese cookery course that they did earlier in the year. I enjoyed it so much that I immediately went home and looked up flights to Vietnam…….