Tag Archives: home cooking

Learning to Cook

A few years ago we encountered some problems when G wanted to learn to cook gluten- and dairy-free recipes in her school cookery classes. Her teacher appeared reluctant to help G learn how to adapt the “normal” recipes to suit her dietary needs and even told her that she would have to bake a normal red velvet cake because baking an allergy-friendly one would require too much work. It was not the most auspicious experience we would have with their school and one that would leave me feeling a little jaded about what might happen when it came time for M to start his round of food technology lessons.

Fortunately, M’s Year 7 teacher was willing to work with us when it came to each of the dishes he would be preparing in class and all in all, it was a positive start to M’s life at secondary school. This year M found himself once more in the cycle of food tech classes and all I could hope was that his Year 9 experience would be as good as his Year 7 one. As luck would have it, his teacher this year was keen to make sure that M could learn how to cook safe food for himself just as his classmates do and encouraged M to adapt every recipe to suit his particular dietary requirements, no hesitation and no fear that it would be too difficult to manage.

Having a teacher that not only helped M learn to cook, but who was also interested to find out more about how and why we made the adaptations we do was a huge boost to M’s confidence. Her attention to detail and preparedness to make sure that the cross-contamination risks of sharing a classroom kitchen and work-spaces with other

13 and 14 year-olds were reduced as much as practicable helped reassure him every week he cooked. M even shared my blog with her as he wanted her to understand more about his condition and see the many recipes that I’ve already adapted to suit his various allergy needs.

From chicken biryani to a prawn stir-fry and chilli con carne to a cheese and potato pasty (although that one wasn’t safe for him), M flexed his cooking muscles and has learned some great new skills that will stand him in good stead in the future. Our thanks have to go to a fantastic teacher who didn’t see M’s food allergies as a barrier to him learning to cook and worked with him to make sure that his health issues don’t stand in the way of achieving whatever he sets his mind to: that’s inclusion at its very best.

#FFFA20 – 5 years on

Last week saw me back in London for one of my all-time favourite events of the year: judging a couple of categories for this year’s Free From Food Awards (#FFFA20). It hardly seems 5 years since I completed my first stint and I can honestly say that every year since has been fantastic. It’s a day spent with an amazing group of people from the free from community, be they bloggers, allergy sufferers, parents of children with allergies, food manufacturers or producers. Every year sees me widening that tribe of mine and I absolutely love getting to know new people and oft-times linking faces to names I’ve seen across the various social media platforms I frequent.

This year saw me return to 2 of the categories judged at my first FFFA in 2016 – “Meaty & Fishy Ready Meals” and “Confectionery”. As ever I’m always on the lookout for new possibilities for both G and M and even more so this year as we see the number of safe foods for M slowly, but steadily increasing. I find it fascinating to see what products are entered into each category, particularly with the “Meaty & Fishy Ready Meals” as the range of options can be so wide. From 10am, we were tasting and critiquing breaded fish, breaded chicken, sausages, burgers, a few microwave meals and even a prepacked sandwich. What was particularly great this year was that there was nothing that was really dreadful and whilst not everything might have been to my taste, the final award winners are all very much deserved in my opinion.

My own highlights from this category include:

M&S Made Without Wheat Honey Roast Ham and Mature Cheddar Cheese sandwich:  Honestly, if I hadn’t known that I was eating something freefrom, I absolutely would never have guessed. Forget dry bread, hole-y bread, doesn’t-really-taste-like-bread bread…this sandwich was unquestionably as good as its gluten-filled counterparts and generously filled with ham and cheddar cheese. If I had to find a criticism, perhaps that it is a little limited in just being gluten-free, but that really is being incredibly picky. It didn’t really “fit” with the rest of the entries in the Ready Meals category, but with no “Foods to Go” category this year as part of the #FFFA20, I don’t object to it having been entered. This is definitely one that I would recommend to anyone needing or wanting to follow a wheat-free/gluten-free diet.

Co-op Irresistible Pork Sausages: “Wow!” – my honest comment after a taste of these sausages. We are, without a shadow of a doubt, a family that enjoys any meal including sausages and indeed G’s favourite and go-to meal is a plate of bangers and mash. These were delicious – juicy, succulent and absolutely more-ish, the description of these GF sausages as “irresistible” couldn’t be more accurate. We buy nearly all of our meat from our local farmers’ cooperative or from our small-holding friends, but it was great to discover such a good product at a competitive price in a supermarket chain.

Co-op Chunky Breaded Cod (MSC-approved): There were several free-from fish fillets to compare, as this photo shows, but this is the one that absolutely stood out to me. The crumb coating was crispy and robust and the piece I took didn’t fall apart on the fork before it had left the plate and reached my mouth. Well-seasoned, tasty and a balanced mouthful where the fish was definitely the highlight. Even better, the cod is responsibly sourced and MSC approved, which really made it stand out from the crowd.

Tesco Free From Chicken Korma with Rice: A more traditional ready meal in my eyes and a fantastic one at that. Not only gluten-free, but top 14 allergens free and included an interesting mix of brown rice and quinoa in the dish which made it stand out from a competitive crowd. It has been on the supermarket shelves for a little while as this was one of the dishes we were lucky enough to be sent to try just after their launch, but it reminded me just how good these ready meals really are. A rich creamy flavour, which was well-balanced and didn’t taste too watery despite being microwave cooked, something I have found to be the case with other similar ready meal options.

As you can see, it was a real mix of what I would consider the more traditional ready meals that are ready in minutes and foods that need little preparation other than cooking. It was great to see offerings from many of the major supermarkets and, whilst I didn’t mention them above, there were also some good options from both Aldi and Lidl. I love seeing more and more supermarket chains coming on board with their free from food choices and making them more available and affordable than they perhaps have been before.

Snow Globe Magic

If I’m perfectly honest, G’s 16th birthday cake is an idea that has been bubbling for a few years, ever since I first saw it shared on Facebook, but it’s taken me this long to pluck up the courage to actually give it a whirl and be organised enough to start the decorations more than 24 hours in advance of her birthday. I was very nervous about whether I’d be able to get it to work, but the end result was much better than I hoped and G was absolutely delighted with it. That was especially important given this was the girl who just a couple of weeks ago said that she didn’t really want to celebrate her birthday and wasn’t bothered about having a cake!

To start with, I found a brilliant new recipe for a gluten-free, vegan sponge cake on The Loopy Whisk and, with a few tweaks to make it just as G finally decided she wanted – a vanilla and chocolate chip cake – and ended up with a wonderfully light and delicious birthday cake for her. I also whipped up a batch of cupcakes for my choir’s Christmas meet-up from the same batter and despite a few issues around getting the timing of that bake right, I was thrilled with those as well.

Next it was on to the most challenging step of all – to create a “snow globe” to encase the top of G’s cake to make it a truly magical masterpiece. The instructions on how to make the globe from high quality melted glycerine can be found here as well as my “step-by-step” photos you can see here. I attempted a larger globe than for individual cupcakes, which was successful, but much trickier to coat the balloon than the instructions suggest. Also, a word to the wise, don’t use balloons that have writing/images printed on them – the only balloons I had tucked away at home were Over The Wall ones and so G’s snow globe had an unexpected additional image, which delighted her, but wasn’t quite what I was aiming for!

I kept the design on top of the cake quite simple and attempted a new buttercream icing using goats’ butter as that’s something she can tolerate without a problem and that M can have a little of as a treat. I always find it difficult to make a dairy-free icing that is stiff enough to pipe successfully, but this batch was better than ones I’ve created before and I think it will need to be a case of continued trial and error until I find that perfect recipe. So, with a layer of desiccated coconut snow, a simply piped Christmas tree and the requisite “16” candles, G’s birthday cake was complete for another year. And this year I was only up to 1.30am finishing it off!

Keep Calm and Curry On!

There’s nothing better when visiting a new place than finding a local market to explore and uncover any treasures hidden amongst the stalls. Manchester proved to be no exception and we were tempted by the vast array of produce, handcrafted gifts and other knick-knacks on offer. G was drawn to the trays of sparkling jewellery, whilst M investigated the various food items to see if anything was M-friendly and worth considering. He was delighted with the fresh fruits on offer as well as the multiple flavours of Turkish Delight that seemed to be calling his name, whilst G was drawn to the jewellery stalls, particularly the rings. We found a variety of small items to pick up for future occasions, well Christmas is fast-approaching after all, but the out-and-out winner for the day has to be the amazing “Curry On Cooking” Korma curry kit

Company founder, Veena Josh was on hand on the market stall and more than willing to spend some time chatting to me about their curry kits, which are fantastically top-14 free and definitely worth a try at home with the children. G isn’t the biggest fan of curry, but M loves Indian food and I was hoping that this would give him a more authentic taste than the concoction I usually manage to scrabble together for dinner from whatever spices are lurking in the back of my cupboard. Veena shared with me that not only does each pack include a recipe on the packaging, but also either she or her sister try making their curries using a variety of milk alternatives to check that the curry can be prepared to be as allergy-friendly – and delicious – as you want and need it to be.

Having bought a kit and brought it home with us after the indoor sky-diving adventures, it was a case of waiting for the perfect opportunity to give the recipe a whirl and just a couple of weeks later, we decided on a curry for our Saturday night family dinner. M read through the ingredients listed on the inside of the pack, made a note of anything we needed to buy to make it and then helped prep and cook the meal itself. A delicious meal was prepared and served to our discerning family audience. M, Mike and I all very much enjoyed the flavours of the curry and whilst G was far more reluctant to give it a glowing review, she did manage to finish her plate,eventually!

The curry kit has since been used to make another dinner for the children as well as a handy safe alternative to the biryani spices needed for M to cook with at school. We will definitely be trying out some of the other curry kits available and seeing just how far we can push that spiciness factor!

Fishy Fridays

Like so many, I was brought up in a time when the tradition of eating fish on Fridays was prevalent, but the increasing restrictions on M’s diet over the last few  years have meant that it was something we didn’t really continue as a family as M couldn’t share in that meal. Add in the challenge of cooking something substantial quickly enough to meet G and M’s increased appetites after 3 hours at Stagecoach on a Friday evening, and I frequently found myself opting for something frozen I could pop in the oven before we picked them up. I often chose allergy-friendly fish-fingers for G, so there was at least a nod to my upbringing on occasion.

M loved fish and seafood before his diagnosis and so getting them back into his diet if at all possible was always an ambition of ours. I remember both G and M tucking into plates of just about every seafood you can imagine when they were small, with M declaring that the only one he absolutely didn’t enjoy was the oyster! G is a little less adventurous these days, though she still loves calamari if it’s ever on offer. We have attempted a few different fish since he was tube-fed, but it is only really in the last 18 months or so that we have been able to find a small but tasty selection that he can tolerate on a reasonably regular basis.

Tuna and prawns now appear on the menu every couple of weeks, but there really is only so many ways that you can prepare these to create any variety in serving options. With M being keen to increase his repertoire of meals, just imagine my delight when I discovered at our local supermarket a safe version of one of my all-time favourite pub dishes, scampi, for G and M to try at home. Whitby Wholetail Scampi is amazingly gluten-, dairy-, egg- and soya-free and the breadcrumb coating is predominantly rice flour, which ticks so many boxes for us. We were pleasantly surprised by the portion size of a box – just the right amount to feed my two – and the texture and taste of the crumb is excellent. This scampi has been a big success in the house and makes for a delicious, quick and traditional dinner for any Friday night!

Summer Photo Round-up 2019

Summer 2019 was all about home-grown entertainment and experiences before heading into a year of GCSEs – both exams and options!

A pudding for every day

M’s restricted diet has come with a number of challenges over the years, not least of which is finding some delicious desserts for him to enjoy at the end of a meal. I have worked hard to adapt recipes or create new ones for him, but sometimes all this busy working Mum wants is to be able to pull a pudding out of the fridge and not have to do anything more than remove the lid and provide a spoon. One of the staples of my childhood for weekday desserts was fruit yoghurts and when M was small, he absolutely loved eating a yoghurt whenever he fancied it. G has always been less keen, although she definitely enjoys the odd soya pudding – especially the chocolate ones – on occasion.

So, I’m constantly on the look-out for an M-friendly alternative and you can imagine my delight when my hours of internet trawling uncovered the wonder that are Bio Organic Rice Desserts. Now sadly these puddings are incredibly difficult to source and I have spent a small fortune in shipping boxes of them to our house. However, the chocolate desserts have been a huge hit with Master M and those boxes definitely don’t last long unless a few are hidden away from his immediate view.

18 months ago I came across  La Crèmerie’ and their rice yoghurts at the Foodmatters Live Conference in London and last summer I eventually managed to convince M to give the yoghurts a try. We placed an order for both the plain and the vanilla flavours, but unfortunately  La Crèmerie was low on stock and we had to wait a little while for just the plain yoghurts to be delivered to our door. The rice yoghurt is delicious, although M wasn’t too keen on the plain flavour – I just wish that he’d had the opportunity to taste the vanilla ones as well. However, whilst they weren’t the biggest success we’ve ever seen, they did make a great addition to his smoothies and I was also able to use it to create a stewed apple and yoghurt pudding for him. Sadly, these are another more expensive option and perhaps not one for everyday, but they are a good dairy-free alternative and one I’d happily recommend.

Rocky Road

Over the last few months, I have been encouraging G and M to become more engaged with the treats they like to eat, in particular asking them to find, choose and make the goodies they want to eat themselves. Part of my reasoning was to make sure M has some safe desserts to include with his lunch at school as it’s so difficult to buy safe options for him, and part was to help them both develop the skills they need to cook safe food in the future. It has been a mixed success and as soon as their initial enthusiasm wore off, the number of biscuits and snacks they had similarly reduced to almost nothing. However, after a couple of busy weeks at work, I decided to seek solace in the baking process myself and chose to experiment with adapting a new recipe for them both to enjoy.

My starting point was a favourite treat of mine, which I thought I could adapt, but actually needed me to perfect another biscuit first before I could even attempt the final product. I love shortbread, especially at Christmas time and I thought that an M-friendly shortbread might be a great starting point and something G and M would both like on its own. Some quick online research and I found a great and simple shortbread recipe, which thanks to our recent successful introduction of Vitalite dairy-free margarine to M’s diet, only needed me to swap the flour to make it perfect for him. It didn’t take long to whip up the first batch and G and M were delighted to taste-test them for me.

With the success of the shortbread in my back pocket, it was time to turn my attention to my final goal – M-friendly Rocky road. This time I recruited G as my kitchen help and she enjoyed the tasks of chopping the Freedom mallows as well as smashing some of the shortbread into bitesize pieces too. Whilst the standard recipe calls for the inclusion of raisins or cherries in it, we haven’t yet introduced them into M’s diet and so instead used dried banana chips, which again had some attention from G and her trusty rolling-pin. Moo-free chocolate has proven to be another safe option for M and was the final ingredient needed for the recipe.

An hour or 2 in the fridge and the Rocky road was ready. It was another resounding success with G and M and they certainly enjoyed the week or so that followed as either shortbread or rocky road was included in their packed lunches every day. Even better, M was so taken with both recipes that it reignited his interest in doing some safe baking himself and he spent a Saturday afternoon making the shortbread and prepping everything for the rocky road before he had to head to bed. He even told me off for not having put my recipes onto my blog quick enough for him to find and follow – so here they are, ready for the next time my youngest ventures into the kitchen!

Pizza and Ballet

One of the Christmas presents we were treated to this year was family tickets to go and see Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake” at the Bristol Hippodrome. We have only been to a couple of ballets with the children over the years despite our love of the theatre and my Mum was keen for us to experience this unconventional retelling of this classic ballet. Of course, no family evening out can start without dinner out too and this time round, partly as we were later arriving in Bristol than we’d originally planned and partly because, well, why not, we decided to veer away from our known safe restaurants and look for somewhere new to try.

It’s always a challenge when eating out with G and M because of their dietary needs, but our decision over the last 18 months or so to relax M’s restrictions on high days and holidays in order to find a better quality of life and balance for him means that on occasions like this, we’re able to eat in places where we’re confident he can choose safe ingredients to make a tasty meal. We know that there are a number of restaurants near to Bristol Hippodrome from Pizza Express to Wagamama, so I made the suggestion that we wandered up Park Street to see what else might be available, with our end target being Pizza Express if nothing else seemed to suit.

About halfway up the hill, we stumbled across the marvellous Molto Buono restaurant and, spotting gluten-free pizza bases on the menu, decided to stop there and see how their food measured up to the children’s somewhat exacting standards. It didn’t take too long for G and M to decide what they wanted to eat and were delighted to discover that as well as gluten-free pizza bases, the restaurant also had vegan mozzarella available as a topping. Much to my surprise, G opted for the GF Marinara pizza – tomato sauce, olive oil and oregano – and M chose the GF Diavola – tomato, salami and vegan mozzarella. Mike joined them in trying one of handmade pizzas, whilst I settled on a pesto pasta. The dishes that arrived looked amazing and tasted even better with portion sizes that satisfied even the voracious appetite of the youngest member of our family. I wouldn’t hesitate recommending this restaurant – excellent food, prepared simply, served quickly and all at a great price.

Fully satisfied by our meal and with more than enough time to meander our way back towards the theatre, our evening had started in fine fashion. We all then sat enthralled for the next couple of hours as the story of Swan Lake unfolded before us. Matthew Bourne’s interpretation brings a more modern-day twist to the tale and replaces the well-known Dance of the Cygnets with an incredible male troupe of swans instead. The dancing was incredible and brought real inspiration to both G and M as they watched it in absolute awe, something that should never be under-estimated as M had expressed his concerns about watching a ballet – “…there are no words to explain what’s going on, so how do you know the story-line..?” before it even began.

I think we would all heartily recommend seeing this production, though it turns out that I’m something of a traditionalist when it comes to the setting, much preferring the classic portrayal of the Swan Lake tragic love story. It was fascinating to talk to G and M about their thoughts on the production, with M uncertain as to whether the second half was a dream or not and both expressing the view that the role of the Swan/Stranger represented the 2 sides oft he Prince’s psyche. This was a performance that really challenged everything we knew and expected of a ballet and was a truly amazing experience. Despite my hesitations about some parts of this version, I am fascinated to see how Matthew Bourne has adapted and updated other ballets and hope to be able to see another of his productions soon.

Battle of the Birthday cakes

December is always a busy month for our family, what with birthdays, anniversaries and Christmas to celebrate and squeeze in alongside the end of term and all the added demands that that almost always inevitably brings. As well as the last-minute rush to make sure cards have been written (and sent) and that presents have been bought (and wrapped), I also have to make sure I have time to bake the perfect cake to help us celebrate G’s birthday in style.

Over the years I have tried my hand at all sorts of cakes and I love spending the time to let my creative side really come out, though Mike might disagree as some of my more complicated masterpieces have kept us up into the early hours as I strive to get every detail just right. Last year I attempted a gluten- and dairy-free red velvet cake for G, which tasted great, but didn’t look as appealing as I’d have liked and so this year I was determined to create her a special treat that looked and tasted the part. G is a definite chocolate lover, something that can be a little tricky when you’re dairy-free, but there are lots of great dairy-free options available and I was determined to use a mix of them to make G a cake that the whole family, including M, could enjoy.

The obvious starting point was the beautiful chocolate mayonnaise cupcakes that I had perfected for Mike’s birthday and which I knew I could turn into a fantastic 2 layer cake. I wanted to create a really sumptuous filling and to my delight discovered this salted caramel flavoured icing mix as I wandered around our local supermarket. Mixed with our regular dairy-free spread, this made the perfect buttercream filling and topping for G’s cake. I finished it off with handfuls of Freedom mallows, shavings of Moo-free chocolate and sprinkles of Sainsbury’s Free From White chocolate chips. The final cake was a huge success: gooey, delicious and everything my chocolate-lover could have wanted for her 15th birthday.

Once G’s birthday celebrations finally came to an end, I was then on to my next birthday cake project, which was to bake a cake for my Aunt for her birthday on December 23. This year was her first celebrating without my Uncle, who sadly passed away earlier in 2018 and the plan was for a family gathering at my Mum’s house to mark the day. Mum was keen for me to bake some more of the chocolate cake that I had made for G’s birthday, but I wanted to do something a little different, especially with Christmas right around the corner, and instead settled on one of M’s firm favourites, banana bread.

When it came to making the cake, G was a huge help and offered to bake a dozen cupcakes, whilst I decided how to decorate them. She did a great job and by the time I’d found the perfect design and all the necessary ingredients, there were 12 wonderful looking cupcakes waiting and ready to go. I took inspiration from the front cover of a fantastic cupcakes cookery book that I’ve used before and gave a nod to my Welsh heritage with a plateful of sheep cupcakes. Safe buttercream icing, a small supply of Freedom mallows, safe cocoa powder and a little fondant icing was all that was needed to create these fun birthday treats,which were not only enjoyed on the 23rd, but saw G and M through Christmas too.