just cake

choccakeCooking with one child is fun. It’s just the right amount of messy and entertaining, with usually a half decent pay off. Plus you can physically overpower them if food hygiene standards depend on it. Cooking with two kids, when one of them isn’t old enough to care about helping, but is inquisitive enough to try and scale the side of the oven, is proving harder.

I stuck my 4 year old in front of some questionable TV while the Health Visitor came over to lecture me about the baby. Afterwards, inspired by the high school cartoon, she requested we make heart shaped cupcakes. I’m not sure that heart shaped cupcakes are a thing (They are, of course. They just generally require more precision and equipment than my 7.5 minute window allowed) but I had a heart shaped baking tray and a positive attitude.

She’s getting pretty great at cooking now. She can crack an egg, work the electronic scales, and eat almost as much raw cake mix as I can. But now her little brother cannot be placated with his highchair and a toy, our time is limited. I put him on the floor with some pots and a wooden spoon. That’s a thing, right? Didn’t we all grow up banging pots & pans for toys? The difference being, I guess, that we didn’t have the lure of the entire contents of the recycling bin to tip over and eat. Parenting was simpler, back before pollution was invented.

1. Create a basic sponge mix, tip into your tin of choice.
2. Add half a jar of Nutella, swirl around into the cake batter.
3. Enjoy several glorious minutes of still quietness, as everyone sucks chocolate spread covered spoons.
4. Cook for the required amount of time. Fill the house with amazing smells. Feel vaguely competent.
5. Serve after dinner, at which point your 4 year old will declare “I don’t like cake anymore”.

Adequate

Because there isn’t already enough to do at Christmas, there exists a strange societal pressure to ‘get together’ with people you managed to exist the whole of the previous year without seeing. “Is it a lot harder with two, then?” asked one such friend. We had our first babies together, but she stopped at one, and we’ve been seeing each other at weddings and Decembers ever since. “Yes!” I replied emphatically. Trying to convey with one word a mixture of intense jubilation, despondency, and the fact that I was too knackered to speak in full sentences. Yes.

(During this conversation, I drank Babycham ironically, while my younger child slept on my lap. My older child was in an entirely different country with her dad, being given a plastic tea set by a very Welsh Santa Claus, so I wasn’t exactly overworked. Nonetheless, yes.)

In the early days I stumbled into preschool and, partly to make small talk and partly for adult human contact, wailed “when does having two kids get easier?” to a couple of altogether more competent looking grownups. The manager rolled her eyes and tutted “when you have three”, in a matronly ‘pull yourself together’ way, but nonetheless took (and continues to take) the baby off me while I filled in the register, picked up the wellies, and generally stared in bewilderment at my fleetingly empty arms. Another mum, with the benefit of hindsight afforded by having her second child ten months before I had mine, assured me that everything would be fine. Months later, as we all stand in the corridor gossiping about birthday party invitations, she still quietly asks “how are you?”, in a genuinely interested, genuinely concerned, are you about to cry, kind of way. Women are brilliant.

There’s less bullshit, the second time around. When you’re pregnant with number two and strangers launch into the obligatory ‘when are you due, what are you having, have you got names?’ spiel, nothing kills the conversation quite like answering no to the question “is it your first?”. The questioners hate it when it isn’t your first. Hate it. I’ve experienced people simply walk away at that juncture. Possibly because they realise you’ll have less tolerance for unsolicited nonsensical advice as a second time parent. Or simply because second time babies just aren’t that interesting.

I was doing an OK job. Adequate, I kept telling myself. For a time I had good hours, and then good days. I almost had an entirely good week once, but then it all went to shit about 4pm on the Friday, and I ended up collapsed in a snotty heap, crying into a Frozen jigsaw puzzle. I didn’t realise what a half decent job I was actually doing until I got ill and spent a few days not being able to do anything besides barely keep us all alive. When I did so little washing that I had to resurrect my Christmas fleecy onesie. Because nothing conveys ‘not coping’ quite like sweaty festive leisurewear on the third week in January.

In her book, Amy Poehler says that when her second son was born she “aged a hundred years in his first year”. I shouldn’t underestimate this transition. Nor, I suppose, should I underestimate the recent achievement of having read an entire book for pleasure. It’s been nine months, Almost the length of a pregnancy. And we’re doing OK. Maybe even well.

I did that.

I know people who have achieved some great things. High flying jobs, exotic travel, feats of athletics I could only dream of.

I’m not particularly ambitious. I’m happily average, for the most part. But there was something I wanted to achieve, something that was important to me, something I failed to achieve the first time I tried to do it. So I set out to give it a go, with tenacity, gritted teeth, and more than a little luck.

When things were going my way I was warned not to brag about it, for fear of upsetting other people who weren’t so successful. Relatives rolled their eyes and questioned my judgement. Support networks proved worryingly unsupportive. A couple of friends were awesome, but few people knew how important it was to me.

Seemingly (certainly in my experience) many people have an opinion on this subject. The internet is full – I know because I’ve read enough articles to last a lifetime. It’s an emotionally charged, angry, occasionally vitriolic discussion. Even if you find your appropriate corner, to talk to like-minded people, you must temper your comments lest they offend somebody, somewhere. It’s all a bit exhausting. It’s a subject that doesn’t need another voice, and a discussion I don’t particularly want to be a part of. If I had the energy I might try and change things. But, like I said, I’m not particularly ambitious.

This achievement is small, in the grand scheme of life. It’s mine, I certainly don’t expect anyone else to care. A couple of years from now it won’t even matter that much to me anymore. But today it’s huge. I worked hard, and I did it. I’m incredibly proud of myself.

 

 

macaroni cheese – a gateway drug

maccheeseOnce we’d depleted the stockpile of proper food in our freezer, we existed for a while on hastily prepared noodle based dishes. And then, more recently, I spent a week almost exclusively eating Wreck-It Ralph birthday cake.

I’m in a food based rut. But Autumn has always been the season for cooking. The nights are drawing in, the shops are full of unwanted pumpkins, and I will soon have another child to cook for. So I’m dusting off my recipe books, making lists, and talking about (and then not getting around to) buying a slow cooker again.

I’m not creative in the slightest. I’m like the anti-creative. Nonetheless, I find cooking incredibly inspiring. Cooking, when you have 30 dedicated minutes in a relatively tidy kitchen and all required ingredients, is fun. It makes me sad when people don’t enjoy cooking. That they miss simple pleasures like making béchamel sauce. I mean, how clever is that? You take these three basic items, and turn them into this pan of amazing creamy sauce. It’s like science that you can eat.

While I gear up to remembering how to cook, I’m making a lot of macaroni cheese. ‘Macaroni’ cheese in the loosest sense of the word, because I generally just use whichever pasta is going. And whichever cheese. The details aren’t important. The bowl of hot cheesy bacon pasta is.

500g bag of pasta
8 rashers streaky bacon
50g butter
50g plain flour
700ml milk
250g grated cheese
1/2 tbsp wholegrain mustard
50g breadcrumbs (I grated some stale sun-dried tomato baguette)
Oven set to 190 degrees

1. Cook the pasta until al dente, drain. Grill the bacon and chop into pieces.
2. Melt the butter in a pan until sizzling. Add the flour and stir vigorously with a whisk until combined.
3. Gradually add the milk, stirring often with the whisk. Simmer for 3-4 minutes until the sauce begins to thicken.
4.  Remove sauce from heat and stir in most of the cheese. (Save a handful for the end.)
5. Pour the cheese sauce over the pasta and mix well. Stir in the mustard and the bacon pieces.
6. Transfer to an ovenproof dish, sprinkle with leftover cheese & breadcrumbs, bake for 20 minutes.

The great age

cakeThe people who tell you that two is terrible and three is “two with intent”, all seem to agree that four is pretty great. The same way that you’re told to hang in there with a screaming newborn, that everything will fall into place when they hit 3 months old, those in the midst of supermarket floor meltdowns are told that it’ll all be ok once they reach 4 years old. At which point, presumably, said child will stop smashing shit up in the cereal aisle and go pack your shopping for you.

I didn’t notice a seismic shift on the morning of her birthday. But then I was too busy trying to remember who’d bought what amongst the present unwrapping frenzy, and then lugging 600 boxes of mini Smarties to preschool.

It’s more gradual. She’ll suddenly use a word we didn’t know she knew, or do something she wasn’t previously able to, and brush off our exclaimed compliments like it’s no big deal. “God mum & dad, you’re so embarrassing” is already implied, if not yet uttered. I’m beginning to see why so many people are compelled to set up blogs of ‘funny things my kid said’, which are of zero interest to anyone outside their very immediate circle. Because, suddenly, there’s this semi independent person living in my house. Who I can pass on the stairs and have a half decent conversation with. Who wants to do everything unassisted, because “I a big girl now”, and who can actually do an alright job of most of them. Like a flatmate who’s crap at cooking, but always remembers to replace the loo roll.

‘The days are long, but the years are short’, parenting types are fond of saying. It’s a slightly less mawkish version of ‘this too shall pass’. Indeed, enough time has passed that we can now reminisce fondly about the weekend when, as a baby, she cried for 20 solid hours and we thought we were going to die. The stuff she does from this point forward is the stuff she’s going to remember as her childhood. That’s kind of a big deal.

Frozen fractals all around

I have a video from this time last year. My almost three year old daughter unsteadily utters the words “Daddy blue car drive”. It was the first time she ever said four words in a row. Those four words (their quantity rather than quality – colours & modes of transport are toddler staples, after all) were the first step towards a breakthrough from her previously diagnosed speech delay.

And yes, with hindsight, the fact that she didn’t really talk until she was three doesn’t seem such a big deal. But like colic, late crawling, or showing affection for other children by wrestling them into a headlock (just us?), when you’re in the midst of these phases, they can feel hopeless. And onlookers who dismiss them with words like ‘phase’ feel like tormentors. Besides, I challenge anyone to attend an initial speech therapy assessment with their kid and not come out of it feeling anything other than a thoroughly shitty parent.

I can’t remember when the Frozen obsession began. She’d had previous dalliances with Lion King, Little Mermaid and, of course, Toy Story. Her dad, the film critic, would watch trailers on YouTube with her as part of their bedtime routine. Cbeebies stalwarts would be appalled, I’m sure. But then my dad used to sing Queen songs in lieu of nursery rhymes while putting me to bed, and I turned out ok. If slightly obsessed with a couple of their B-sides.

Unlike speech therapy – hours of observation and animal noises in stuffy windowless rooms – preschool helped immeasurably. For the past year her keyworker has tirelessly coaxed words from her. On the day she gained a sticker for standing up and telling the class it was Monday, I cried right there in the cloakroom. By the time she leaves next summer, my daughter will probably deliver whatever the four year old’s equivalent of a commencement speech is. And we’ll be so indebted to said key worker that we’ll probably have to buy her a car.

At the end of term preschool party they played the Frozen soundtrack. The girl who started the school year unwilling or able to tell them much more than her name proceeded to dance around the room and sing the entire cd to 26 people. The staff were still talking about her ‘transformation’ at the open day a week later.

Our lives were punctuated by the words “That’s no blizzard, that’s my sister!” A line which, fact fans, doesn’t even appear in the movie. She saw it at the cinema before she was strictly ready to adhere to cinema etiquette (Thank you Showcase autism friendly screenings!) Her newborn brother arrived accompanied by a copy of the just released blu-ray, as a peace offering to help ease his way into the family.

These days, she talks so much that I can even empathise with the other mums who wish their kids would just give it a rest and stop talking for five minutes. But I always feel guilty when I do. I no longer cry after her speech therapy appointments. Apart from maybe her next one, at which I have a sneaking suspicion they’re going to discharge her.

Today she went with her dad to a Sing-along Frozen screening. She came home excited, telling me in delightfully intricate sentences how loudly she’d sung at the cinema, while digging out her latest ‘toy’ microphone. Having started with a v-tech flashing karaoke machine which plays Twinkle Twinkle, she recently progressed to an old Sing Star mic & stand, a throwback from the days when we had parties instead of babies. (Because performing or, more specifically, showing off, runs in the family.) We spent the next couple of hours watching in awe as she held a Frozen concert in our living room.

I have a video from today. My almost four year old daughter belts out the line “My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around.” word perfectly. And, ok, not all of the words she’s singing in Let It Go are dictionary standard. But I’m 33, and I still sing made up lyrics to most of the songs I know. The hype may be hysterical, and other parents might tear their hair out at its unremitting presence in their lives. But I owe a small debt of gratitude to that Disney film.

There’s always money in the Banana Stand

frozen bananaAlthough I’ve wanted to eat one since their first appearance on the show (insert half hour delay while I discover, am incredulous, amazed then dumbfounded that Arrested Development first aired in the UK almost TEN YEARS ago) I’ve never got around to making them.

Even when Netflix sent a banana stand to London to promote the long awaited fourth season, and my husband risked our entire marriage by eating one without me, I didn’t step up to the challenge.

Today the stars have finally aligned. A recent blog post from the inimitable Joy the Baker, combined with an abundance of leftover Easter egg chocolate, and the non appearance of a baby whose ETA was several days ago was finally enough for me to get my (enormous) arse into gear and make the things.

I know, right. After ten years of anticipation I could have made slightly more of an effort. They’re not exactly pretty. But then at this stage in the game I spend approximately 30 seconds on any one task, before declaring it done and spending the next 45 minutes staring at my stomach wondering why I’m not yet in labour. Fun. Imagine how good they could look if you actually made an effort. Nonetheless, for half a minute’s work, they still taste pretty spectacular.

This hardly constitutes a recipe, granted. But I figured writing it in bullet points would be quicker. *stares at stomach*

Bananas (I had about 4)
Chocolate (I used about half a large dark chocolate Easter egg)
Sprinkles of your choice
Lolly sticks

Peel bananas, chop in half, insert lolly sticks
Melt chocolate, spoon over each banana stick, allowing excess chocolate to drain
Cover with whatever toppings you so desire
Place on grease-proof paper, and leave to set in the freezer
Eat. Enjoy. Quote G.O.B. endlessly. Go into labour (optional)