Empire of the mum

When you walk into our house, you come straight into the kitchen: it is the hub of the house, the warmest room, the beating heart of family life. Cooking is my passion: after a decidedly lacklustre time in the classroom at school, learning to cook was my nirvana moment, something I not only found easy but could do really well. It is my raison d’être. So, when I was a young mother to three children, I always imagined that when the time came for my fledglings to leave the nest, I’d be waving them off into the big wide world with useful kitchen skills. In my vision, they’d be armed with a set of good knives and a folder of hand-chosen home recipes that would win them friends and bring comfort in those early days of living independently.

The muffin incident was the start of the slippery slope

A perfect example of the guidance I had in mind is given by chef Sally Clarke in First Put On Your Apron, a parting gift to her son when he headed off to university. She starts with a simple set of “Kitchen Rules” that I wholeheartedly approve:

Wash your hands
Wear an apron
Keep it simple
Remember that the prep work is key
Make a task list before starting
Clear up as you go
Don’t drink (too much) until the food is on the table
Do not leave knives in the sink
Wipe down the surfaces often
Lay the table — as if setting the stage
Give everyone a napkin (kitchen roll will do)

It is exactly the sort of practical advice I’d like to have passed on to my three. But here’s the thing: I didn’t. I find it difficult to explain exactly why I failed this task, despite good food being so important me. It turns out my youngest is more insightful. “It is your domain!” he explains. Growing up, everyone bowed to the diktat of “My kitchen, my rules”. Woe betide any stray coats and discarded coffee mugs, for they would all be swept away. Elizabeth David was my mentor when she said: “Devote all the time and resources at your disposal to the building up of a fine kitchen. It will be, as it should be, the most comforting and comfortable room in the house…” but that doesn’t mean you can mess it up.

It was fine when my kids were small, because cooking together was simple and fun. We’d bake little fairy cakes or fry homemade chicken goujons, food that was easy and quick and allowed me to remain in control of the scary bits like hot ovens and sharp knives. But it all went downhill as they got older. The “muffin incident” was probably the start of the slippery slope. Bella was making the muffins, a three-hour operation for a 30-minute recipe, but the end was in sight. All she had to do was melt the butter on the Aga, I said. Minutes later we were overwhelmed by the acrid smell of smoke, and I turned around to find that she’d put the whole pack of butter on the Aga, which had now melted and was running over the surface and down the sides while smoking out the entire kitchen. After a lot of shouting and mopping up, calm was restored and the muffins were completed, but… never again.

I did think that at least I’d inspire my growing kids with a taste for home cooking and I tried desperately hard to get them to eat healthily by offering them a wide variety of foods to try out. But that vision didn’t quite materialise either. I thought I’d nailed it with quiche, for example, something I would regularly put in their school lunch boxes, which always came home empty: success! So I was very surprised one weekend when they all turned their noses up at my beautiful French flan, freshly warm from the oven and edged with crisp golden pastry. But you like it when I bake it for school, I remonstrated. No, they replied, the school secretary does! Evidently, she would go down the line of children every morning and cherry-pick whatever she felt like for lunch.

It seems I have belatedly caught up with what everyone else in the family has known for ages: that although I love to cook for them, sadly I can’t cope with any of them cooking with or for me. I console myself with a silver lining: that if they still don’t know the secrets to my recipes but feel nostalgic for my food, they’ll have to come home and spend some time with us! And what could be more heartwarming than being shown love through good food and wine. As Julia Child said: “I think careful cooking is love, don’t you? The loveliest thing you can cook for someone who’s close to you is about as nice a Valentine as you can give.”

If there’s one dish I know I can lure my kids home with, it’s the following recipe. Pommes dauphinoise is the gift that keeps on giving, since there’s usually some left over and they are delicious cold, but even better reheated.

Pommes Dauphinoise

Prep time 15 min – Cook time 40 min
Serves 6-8

For a lighter, more fragrant version replace half the potatoes with the same amount of peeled and slice celeriac.

500ml each of double cream and milk
Salt and ground black pepper
3 garlic cloves, crushed
8 large King Edward or Maris Piper potatoes

Place the cream, milk, seasoning and garlic in a large heavy-based pan and bring to the boil, simmer for 2 min. Meanwhile peel 8 large potatoes, then slice very finely with a sharp knife or mandolin. Add the potatoes to the cream and simmer for 5-10 min or until just cooked. Check the seasoning and then carefully pour or spoon into a shallow ovenproof dish. Cook at 190°C for 30 min or until the potatoes are soft and the top is golden.

Lydia Brownlow is a former cookery editor at Good Housekeeping magazine and contributor to The Daily Beast. She currently inspires children to cook. More info at lydiabrownlow.com

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Food For Thought, Life, November 2023

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